Monthly Archives: December 2016

Christmas in 2040

I am cheating with this post, since I did a newspaper interview that writes up some of my ideas and will save time rewriting it all. Here’s a link:

https://www.thesun.co.uk/living/2454633/dinner-cooked-by-robots-no-wrapping-paper-and-video-make-up-for-the-office-party-this-is-what-christmas-will-look-like-in-2040-according-to-futurologist-dr-ian-pearson/

I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas.

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Get all of my current e-books free, today only

This offer is now over. Sorry if you missed it.

As an early Christmas present, I have made all of my books free just for today on Amazon. The links here are for amazon.co.uk, but the book reference is the same on other branches so just edit the .co.uk to .com or whatever.

You Tomorrow and Society Tomorrow were almost entirely made by adding some of my blogs, tidying up and filling a few gaps.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/You-Tomorrow-Ian-Pearson-ebook/dp/B00G8DLB24

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Society-Tomorrow-Growing-Century-Britain-ebook/dp/B01HJY7RHI

Total Sustainability takes a system level view of sustainability and contradicts a lot of environmentalist dogma.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Total-Sustainability-Ian-Pearson-ebook/dp/B00FWMW194

Space Anchor is my only Sci-fi novel to date, and features the first ever furry space ship in sci-fi, a gender-fluid AI, and its heroes Carbon Girl and Carbon Man have an almost entirely carbon-based itinerary.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Space-Anchor-Ian-Pearson-ebook/dp/B00E9X02IE

Enjoy reading. Next year I hope to finish my book on future fashion.

 

Fluorescent microsphere mist displays

A few 3D mist displays have been demonstrated over the last decade. I’ve seen a couple at trade shows and have been impressed. To date, they use mists or curtains of tiny water droplets to make a 3D space onto which to project an image, so you get a walk-through 3D life-sized display. Like this:

http://wonderfulengineering.com/leia-display-system-uses-a-screen-made-of-water-mist-to-display-3d-projections/

or check out: http://ixfocus.com/top-10-best-3d-water-projections-ever/

Two years ago, I suggested using a forehead-mounted mist projector:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/11/03/forehead-3d-mist-projector/

so you could have a 3D image made right in front of you anywhere.

This week, a holographic display has been doing the rounds on Twitter, called Gatebox:

https://www.geek.com/tech/gatebox-wants-to-be-your-personal-holographic-companion-1682967/

It looks OK but mist displays might be better solution for everyday use because they can be made a lot bigger more cheaply. However, nobody really wants water mist causing electrical problems in their PCs or making their notebook paper soggy. You can use smoke as a mist substitute but then you have a cloud of smoke around you. So…

Suppose instead of using water droplets and walking around veiled in fog or smoke or accompanied by electrical crackling and dead PCs, that the mist was not made of water droplets but tiny dry and obviously non-toxic particles such as fluorescent micro-spheres that are invisible to the naked eye and transparent to visible light so you can’t see the mist at all, and it won’t make stuff damp. Instead of projecting visible light, the particles are made of fluorescent material, so that they are illuminated by a UV projector and fluoresce with the right colour to make the visible display. There are plenty of fluorescent materials that could be made into tiny particles, even nano-particles, and made into an invisible mist that produces a bright and high-resolution display. Even if non-toxic is too big an ask, or the fluorescent material is too expensive to waste, a large box that keeps them contained and recycles them for the next display could still be bigger, better, brighter and cheaper than a large holographic display.

Remember, you saw it here first. My 101st invention of 2016.

Chat-bots will help reduce loneliness, a bit

Amazon is really pushing its Echo and Dot devices at the moment and some other companies also use Alexa in their own devices. They are starting to gain avatar front ends too. Microsoft has their Cortana transforming into Zo, Apple has Siri’s future under wraps for now. Maybe we’ll see Siri in a Sari soon, who knows. Thanks to rapidly developing AI, chatbots and other bots have also made big strides in recent years, so it’s obvious that the two can easily be combined. The new voice control interfaces could become chatbots to offer a degree of companionship. Obviously that isn’t as good as chatting to real people, but many, very many people don’t have that choice. Loneliness is one of the biggest problems of our time. Sometimes people talk to themselves or to their pet cat, and chatting to a bot would at least get a real response some of the time. It goes further than simple interaction though.

I’m not trying to understate the magnitude of the loneliness problem, and it can’t solve it completely of course, but I think it will be a benefit to at least some lonely people in a few ways. Simply having someone to chat to will already be of some help. People will form emotional relationships with bots that they talk to a lot, especially once they have a visual front end such as an avatar. It will help some to develop and practice social skills if that is their problem, and for many others who feel left out of local activity, it might offer them real-time advice on what is on locally in the next few days that might appeal to them, based on their conversations. Talking through problems with a bot can also help almost as much as doing so with a human. In ancient times when I was a programmer, I’d often solve a bug by trying to explain how my program worked, and in doing so i would see the bug myself. Explaining it to a teddy bear would have been just as effective, the chat was just a vehicle for checking through the logic from a new angle. The same might apply to interactive conversation with a bot. Sometimes lonely people can talk too much about problems when they finally meet people, and that can act as a deterrent to future encounters, so that barrier would also be reduced. All in all, having a bot might make lonely people more able to get and sustain good quality social interactions with real people, and make friends.

Another benefit that has nothing to do with loneliness is that giving a computer voice instructions forces people to think clearly and phrase their requests correctly, just like writing a short computer program. In a society where so many people don’t seem to think very clearly or even if they can, often can’t express what they want clearly, this will give some much needed training.

Chatbots could also offer challenges to people’s thinking, even to help counter extremism. If people make comments that go against acceptable social attitudes or against known facts, a bot could present the alternative viewpoint, probably more patiently than another human who finds such viewpoints frustrating. I’d hate to see this as a means to police political correctness, though it might well be used in such a way by some providers, but it could improve people’s lack of understanding of even the most basic science, technology, culture or even politics, so has educational value. Even if it doesn’t convert people, it might at least help them to understand their own views more clearly and be better practiced at communicating their arguments.

Chat bots could make a significant contribution to society. They are just machines, but those machines are tools for other people and society as a whole to help more effectively.

 

25 predictions for 2017

2017-predictions

AI presents a new route to attack corporate value

As AI increases in corporate, social, economic and political importance, it is becoming a big target for activists and I think there are too many vulnerabilities. I think we should be seeing a lot more articles than we are about what developers are doing to guard against deliberate misdirection or corruption, and already far too much enthusiasm for make AI open source and thereby giving mischief-makers the means to identify weaknesses.

I’ve written hundreds of times about AI and believe it will be a benefit to humanity if we develop it carefully. Current AI systems are not vulnerable to the terminator scenario, so we don’t have to worry about that happening yet. AI can’t yet go rogue and decide to wipe out humans by itself, though future AI could so we’ll soon need to take care with every step.

AI can be used in multiple ways by humans to attack systems.

First and most obvious, it can be used to enhance malware such as trojans or viruses, or to optimize denial of service attacks. AI enhanced security systems already battle against adaptive malware and AI can probe systems in complex ways to find vulnerabilities that would take longer to discover via manual inspection. As well as AI attacking operating systems, it can also attack AI by providing inputs that bias its learning and decision-making, giving AI ‘fake news’ to use current terminology. We don’t know the full extent of secret military AI.

Computer malware will grow in scope to address AI systems to undermine corporate value or political campaigns.

A new route to attacking corporate AI, and hence the value in that company that relates in some way to it is already starting to appear though. As companies such as Google try out AI-driven cars or others try out pavement/sidewalk delivery drones, so mischievous people are already developing devious ways to misdirect or confuse them. Kids will soon have such activity as hobbies. Deliberate deception of AI is much easier when people know how they work, and although it’s nice for AI companies to put their AI stuff out there into the open source markets for others to use to build theirs, that does rather steer future systems towards a mono-culture of vulnerability types. A trick that works against one future AI in one industry might well be adaptable to another use in another industry with a little devious imagination. Let’s take an example.

If someone builds a robot to deliberately step in front of a self-driving car every time it starts moving again, that might bring traffic to a halt, but police could quickly confiscate the robot, and they are expensive, a strong deterrent even if the pranksters are hiding and can’t be found. Cardboard cutouts might be cheaper though, even ones with hinged arms to look a little more lifelike. A social media orchestrated campaign against a company using such cars might involve thousands of people across a country or city deliberately waiting until the worst time to step out into a road when one of their vehicles comes along, thereby creating a sort of denial of service attack with that company seen as the cause of massive inconvenience for everyone. Corporate value would obviously suffer, and it might not always be very easy to circumvent such campaigns.

Similarly, the wheeled delivery drones we’ve been told to expect delivering packages any time soon will also have cameras to allow them to avoid bumping into objects or little old ladies or other people, or cats or dogs or cardboard cutouts or carefully crafted miniature tank traps or diversions or small roadblocks that people and pets can easily step over but drones can’t, that the local kids have built from a few twigs or cardboard from a design that has become viral that day. A few campaigns like that with the cold pizzas or missing packages that result could severely damage corporate value.

AI behind websites might also be similarly defeated. An early experiment in making a Twitter chat-bot that learns how to tweet by itself was quickly encouraged by mischief-makers to start tweeting offensively. If people have some idea how an AI is making its decisions, they will attempt to corrupt or distort it to their own ends. If it is heavily reliant on open source AI, then many of its decision processes will be known well enough for activists to develop appropriate corruption tactics. It’s not to early to predict that the proposed AI-based attempts by Facebook and Twitter to identify and defeat ‘fake news’ will fall right into the hands of people already working out how to use them to smear opposition campaigns with such labels.

It will be a sort of arms race of course, but I don’t think we’re seeing enough about this in the media. There is a great deal of hype about the various AI capabilities, a lot of doom-mongering about job cuts (and a lot of reasonable warnings about job cuts too) but very little about the fight back against AI systems by attacking them on their own ground using their own weaknesses.

That looks to me awfully like there isn’t enough awareness of how easily they can be defeated by deliberate mischief or activism, and I expect to see some red faces and corporate account damage as a result.

PS

This article appeared yesterday that also talks about the bias I mentioned: https://techcrunch.com/2016/12/10/5-unexpected-sources-of-bias-in-artificial-intelligence/

Since I wrote this blog, I was asked via Linked-In to clarify why I said that Open Source AI systems would have more security risk. Here is my response:

I wasn’t intending to heap fuel on a dying debate (though since current debate looks the same as in early 1990s it is dying slowly). I like and use open source too. I should have explained my reasoning better to facilitate open source checking: In regular (algorithmic) code, programming error rate should be similar so increasing the number of people checking should cancel out the risk from more contributors so there should be no a priori difference between open and closed. However:

In deep learning, obscurity reappears via neural net weightings being less intuitive to humans. That provides a tempting hiding place.

AI foundations are vulnerable to group-think, where team members share similar world models. These prejudices will affect the nature of OS and CS code and result in AI with inherent and subtle judgment biases which will be less easy to spot than bugs and be more visible to people with alternative world models. Those people are more likely to exist in an OS pool than a CS pool and more likely to be opponents so not share their results.

Deep learning may show the equivalent of political (or masculine and feminine). As well as encouraging group-think, that also distorts the distribution of biases and therefore the cancelling out of errors can no longer be assumed.

Human factors in defeating security often work better than exploiting software bugs. Some of the deep learning AI is designed to mimic humans as well as possible in thinking and in interfacing. I suspect that might also make them more vulnerable to meta-human-factor attacks. Again, exposure to different and diverse cultures will show a non-uniform distribution of error/bias spotting/disclosure/exploitation.

Deep learning will become harder for humans to understand as it develops and becomes more machine dependent. That will amplify the above weaknesses. Think of optical illusions that greatly distort human perception and think of similar in advanced AI deep learning. Errors or biases that are discovered will become more valuable to an opponent since they are less likely to be spotted by others, increasing their black market exploitation risk.

I have not been a programmer for over 20 years and am no security expert so my reasoning may be defective, but at least now you know what my reasoning was and can therefore spot errors in it.

The future of loneliness

This is primarily about a UK problem, and I honestly don’t know how much US society suffers from it, but I suspect at least some of it holds true in many areas there too.

I’m fortunate that it doesn’t affect me directly, since my wife is all the company I need to be happy, but loneliness is arguably the biggest problem in modern UK society, certainly one of the biggest. Young people feel lonely, old people feel lonely, new mothers feel lonely, students feel lonely. Many others too. It affects a lot of people.

The British Red Cross in conjunction with The Co-op today released a new report on it saying chronic loneliness is becoming a public health issue: https://www.politicshome.com/news/uk/health-and-care/opinion/british-red-cross/81457/chronic-loneliness-has-become-public-health

&

http://www.redcross.org.uk/What-we-do/Health-and-social-care/Independent-living/Loneliness-and-isolation/Research saying 9 million people in the UK are always or often lonely

Older people are the most obvious group affected.

Some reports say loneliness increases chance of death by 25%: http://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/loneliness-research/

Another recent report from Age UK already includes some alarming figures for older people. Taking just two examples (read it for far more) 1 in 8 over-65s chronically lonely, and nearly 1 in 14 having no close friends at all:  www.ageuk.org.uk/Documents/EN-GB/Factsheets/Later_Life_UK_factsheet.pdf

Although older people are the main problem group for loneliness, it can affect anyone, with a few other highlight groups. Each year, 1 in 4000 men between 45-59 commit suicide, 5 times as high as the average rate for female suicide.

New mothers can often feel lonely. The good news (according to netmums) is that thanks to smartphone use, the number is down from 60% a decade ago to 28% today, but that still means more than a quarter of new mums feel lonely even today. I’d also note that between 2006 and today, the netmums user base has changed a great deal, so much of that drop may well be attributable to the high proportion of new mums drawn from immigrant communities, which often have different social support characteristics than the rest of the population, so the figures might not be quite so bright for non-immigrant mums.

Students too experience moving away from an established family and friends support base to a totally new environment where often they might not know anyone at first. Not everyone is expert at making new friends quickly, so many students feel lonely too. Student suicides are at an all time high as students are ‘fraught with loneliness and anxiety’ according to Professor Siobhan O’Neill:

http://www.independent.co.uk/student/student-life/health/student-suicides-loneliness-depression-anxiety-stress-mental-health-services-a7092911.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/wellbeing/mood-and-mind/not-just-a-problem-for-old-people-why-the-young-are-lonely-too/ discusses ‘the 7 ages on loneliness

The sick, the newly divorced, unhappy singles and recent retirees are other groups particularly vulnerable to loneliness. But enough figures and reports, with so much recent press and public discussion about it, we can’t claim that it is a new or unknown problem, but in spite of a few positives such as from netmums, we can be sure it still remains a huge and persistent problem. The organisations named above are doing their bit to help, as are many others, and still it persists.

It would be lovely to believe that improving social networking will solve it all, but it clearly hasn’t even though we could reasonably say that people are mostly familiar with it, mostly know how to use it and it is pretty mature now. As I mentioned, even the netmums good news could in part be the result of changing demographics rather than the problem actually being solved. Only in part though, as I do believe the net does have a positive impact and does let people find new friends and chat to others even when they can’t get out. It must have some benefit, but the figures still say that its impact is at best only a reduction rather than elimination.

There are other net trends that might make it worse though. One is the increasing division we have in society, and another is the increasing censorship under threat of social and economic exclusion if people say something politically incorrect. This is creating barriers between people, not drawing them together, as I wrote in: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/01/27/increasing-censorship-will-lead-to-increasing-loneliness/. Social networking brings people into more frequent contact with strangers, but the separation and anonymity often involved in that also brings out the worst in some people, and social media have become ideological battlegrounds that so often quickly polarise into group-think camps, increasing isolation rather than reducing it.

More evidence that the net doesn’t solve everything is that the Kindr app that was aimed specifically at helping people to be nice to each other seems to have disappeared or at least become inert after a short life, whereas I had hoped it might bring a part solution to helping people who rarely get affection or praise from others: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/06/30/compliments/

Networking clearly helps some people some of the time, but not for everyone all of the time, and in some cases makes things worse.

Automation of shopping and increased competition from the net forces lower prices but sometimes at the expense of human interaction, and for some people, a brief exchange with a checkout assistant is the only contact they get. If we see more automation of shops with more self service tills, that will directly increase loneliness.

The solution is clearly to restore at least some of the real face to face social contact that has become depleted for many in our modern society. Face to face meeting is emotionally more valuable than net contact, and though nets can put people in touch with others or let them know what is going on, it can’t directly provide that contact. People who go to work every day or have busy social lives may not see a problem or if they do, they may feel they have too little time left in their busy lives to spend providing company to someone else.

We have lost a lot of activity that used to provide rich social contact. Many work from home instead of going to an office. Church attendance has dropped enormously, along with the social gatherings, choir practices, old people dinners and barn dances they used to organise. Communities don’t have to get together to help a farmer bring in the harvest. People with cars walk less, have more geographically distributed friends and meet fewer of their neighbours.

Many activists today seem rather obsessed with tolerance, albeit in an Orwellian doublespeak sort of way. Perhaps they should be obsessed about caring for others instead of polishing their halos on twitter. If they are eager to solve a problem to make themselves feel virtuous, this one is screaming for help. The rest of us need to be more willing to do our part too. It is easy to focus on our own lives and our own needs. Many of us are content with the friends we have and maybe we are not aware of anyone who is lonely, or admitting to it. I don’t even know the names of some of the people in my street, let alone whether they are lonely. If I did know of someone nearby who I thought was feeling left out, I think I’d be happy to meet them for coffee or a chat sometimes. But I don’t, and I don’t make any effort to find them either. So the problem remains, and I have done nothing to help. There must be millions like me, caring in a distant luke-warm sort of way about a theoretical part of society that I have no contact with. Except that it isn’t theoretical, it is a massive diverse chunk of society that feels left out. Hiding unknown, God knows where, apparently almost everywhere.

Maybe most of us we do care and would do more if we knew what, where, when, and how we could help and if it wasn’t too much hassle or too time consuming. Obviously, those last requirements depend on whether we know the person, so it’s clear that we’ve been running in a vicious cycle of lower contact and therefore caring less. By meeting people more, we’ll get to know them better and care for them more, though I can think of exceptions. I used to be involved in The Samaritans, on a phone line or fundraising to keep the lines open. I stopped doing that a long time ago as work got too busy; we often use that excuse not to get involved.  If I think about starting again, I immediately think of the traffic problems getting there, parking issues and so on. I am sure many other people might do more if someone else organised it and it was less hassle. Surely, that’s what activists are for. They organise stuff, motivate people, give them a kick up the pants and tell them to get on with it. With all the social networking and AI out there, this really should be solvable.

Now that we have the prospect of AI and automation promising to improve productivity and everyone is worried about jobs, government should work out how to maintain fair distribution of wealth as machines take over, while taking the windfall of collective spare work force hours to recover some of what we have paid for the rapid economic development to get to this point.

The existence of all these charities and organisations yelling loudly about the problem shows absolutely that a lot of people do care and want to do something about it. If time is the problem, we will soon have more time, collectively at least, and more wealth as the productivity gains hit the economy, so more money to pay for it. That will allow activists and social entrepreneurs and councils to work together to provide human resources to find those who want help, transport to get them to social gatherings of whatever kind is suited to them, and to fund those activities and the places they need. The net may not be intuitive or easy for everyone to use, but plenty of people can work it, and providing access to willing helpers will help many people to find what’s on, who might be there that they are likely to enjoy meeting and making it happen.

Red tape barriers need to be wiped away too. The compensation and box-ticking culture has done huge harm. Lots of village fetes, dances and so on no longer happen  because they mean someone now has to apply for assorted licenses, do risk assessments, buy insurances and jump through endless administrative hoops. Why would anyone want to do that? Once upon a time you rang up the hall administrator, booked it, booked a band, then sold tickets. If someone tripped and sprained an ankle, they should have watched where they were going.

The virtuous circle of increasing contact and caring will work, if we can get it going again. People do care more about people they know than someone who is just a statistic. If people with a small level of even theoretical caring for such a large social need can be dragged or otherwise motivated to join in with social activity in their area that someone else has organised, before long, people will have more friends in that area, and they’ll be happy to work together to organise more events and involve more people. Soon, we’ll be back to a proper working society again.

We have the technology. Soon we will have the time and resources to make it happen, to start a virtuous circle to rebuild missing connection in society that leave so many people out, and fix some of the other social problems we created along the way to today’s UK.

 

Colour changing cars, everyday objects and makeup

http://www.theverge.com/2016/11/24/13740946/dutch-scientists-use-color-changing-graphene-bubbles-to-create-mechanical-pixels shows how graphene can be used to make displays with each pixel changing colour according to mechanical deformation.

Meanwhile, Lexus have just created a car with a shell covered in LEDs so it can act as a massive display.

http://www.theverge.com/2016/12/5/13846396/lexus-led-lit-is-colors-dua-lipa-vevo

In 2014 I wrote about using polymer LED displays for future Minis so it’s nice to see another prediction come true.

Looking at the mechanical pixels though, it is clear that mechanical pixels could respond directly to sound, or to turbulence of passing air, plus other vibration that arises from motion on a road surface, or the engine. Car panel colours could change all the time powered by ambient energy. Coatings on any solid objects could follow, so people might have plenty of shimmering colours in their everyday environment. Could. Not sure I want it, but they could.

With sound as a control system, sound wave generators at the edges or underneath such surfaces could produce a wide variety of pleasing patterns. We could soon have furniture that does a good impression of being a cuttlefish.

I often get asked about smart makeup, on which I’ve often spoken since the late 90s. Thin film makeup displays could use this same tech. So er, we could have people with makeup pretending to be cuttlefish too. I think I’ll quit while I’m ahead.

Can we automate restaurant reviews?

Reviews are an important part of modern life. People often consult reviews before buying things, visiting a restaurant or booking a hotel. There are even reviews on the best seats to choose on planes. When reviews are honestly given, they can be very useful to potential buyers, but what if they aren’t honestly give? What if they are glowing reviews written by friends of the restaurant owners, or scathing reviews written by friends of the competition? What if the service received was fine, but the reviewer simply didn’t like the race or gender of the person delivering it? Many reviews fall into these categories, but of course we can’t be sure how many, because when someone writes a review, we don’t know whether they were being honest or not, or whether they are biased or not. Adding a category of automated reviews would add credibility provided the technology is independent of the establishment concerned.

Face recognition software is now so good that it can read lips better than human lip reading experts. It can be used to detect emotions too, distinguishing smiles or frowns, and whether someone is nervous, stressed or relaxed. Voice recognition can discern not only words but changes in pitch and volume that might indicate their emotional context. Wearable devices can also detect emotions such as stress.

Given this wealth of technology capability, cameras and microphones in a restaurant could help verify human reviews and provide machine reviews. Using the checking in process it can identify members of a group that might later submit a review, and thus compare their review with video and audio records of the visit to determine whether it seems reasonably true. This could be done by machine using analysis of gestures, chat and facial expressions. If the person giving a poor review looked unhappy with the taste of the food while they were eating it, then it is credible. If their facial expression were of sheer pleasure and the review said it tasted awful, then that review could be marked as not credible, and furthermore, other reviews by that person could be called into question too. In fact, guests would in effect be given automated reviews of their credibility. Over time, a trust rating would accrue, that could be used to group other reviews by credibility rating.

Totally automated reviews could also be produced, by analyzing facial expressions, conversations and gestures across a whole restaurant full of people. These machine reviews would be processed in the cloud by trusted review companies and could give star ratings for restaurants. They could even take into account what dishes people were eating to give ratings for each dish, as well as more general ratings for entire chains.

Service could also be automatically assessed to some degree too. How long were the people there before they were greeted/served/asked for orders/food delivered. The conversation could even be automatically transcribed in many cases, so comments about rudeness or mistakes could be verified.

Obviously there are many circumstances where this would not work, but there are many where it could, so AI might well become an important player in the reviews business. At a time when restaurants are closing due to malicious bad reviews, or ripping people off in spite of poor quality thanks to dishonest positive reviews, then this might help a lot. A future where people are forced to be more honest in their reviews because they know that AI review checking could damage their reputation if they are found to have been dishonest might cause some people to avoid reviewing altogether, but it could improve the reliability of the reviews that still do happen.

Still not perfect, but it could be a lot better than today, where you rarely know how much a review can be trusted.