Category Archives: AI

Shoulder demons and angels

Remember the cartoons where a character would have a tiny angel on one shoulder telling them the right thing to do, and a little demon on the other telling them it would be far more cool to be nasty somehow, e.g. get their own back, be selfish, greedy. The two sides might be ‘eat your greens’ v ‘the chocolate is much nicer’, or ‘your mum would be upset if you arrive home late’ v ‘this party is really going to be fun soon’. There are a million possibilities.

Enter artificial intelligence, which is approaching conversation level, and knows the context of your situation, and your personal preferences etc, coupled to an earpiece in each ear. If you really insisted, you could make cute little Bluetooth angels and demons to do the job properly.

In fact Sony have launched Xperia Ear, which does the basic admin assistant part of this, telling you diary events etc. All we need is an expansion of its domain, and of course an opposing view. ‘Sure, you have an appointment at 3, but that person you liked is in town, you could meet them for coffee.’

That would make everyday life a lot more fun.

 

State of the world in 2050

Some things are getting better, some worse. 2050 will be neither dystopian nor utopian. A balance of good and bad not unlike today, but with different goods and bads, and slightly better overall. More detail? Okay, for most of my followers, this will mostly collate things you may know already, but there’s no harm in a refresher Futures 101.

Health

We will have cost-effective and widespread cures or control for most cancers, heart disease, diabetes, dementia and most other killers. Quality-of-life diseases such as arthritis will also be controllable or curable. People will live longer and remain healthier for longer, with an accelerated decline at the end.

On the bad side, new diseases will exist, including mutated antibiotic-resistant versions of existing ones. There will still be occasional natural flu mutations and other viruses, and there will still be others arising from contacts between people and other animals that are more easily spread due to increased population, urbanization and better mobility. Some previously rare diseases will become big problems due to urbanization and mobility. Urbanization will be a challenge.

However, diagnostics will be faster and better, we will no longer be so reliant on antibiotics to fight back, and sterilisation techniques for hospitals will be much improved. So even with greater challenges, we will be able to cope fine most of the time with occasional headlines from epidemics.

A darker side is the increasing prospect for bio-terrorism, with man-made viruses deliberately designed to be highly lethal, very contagious and to withstand most conventional defenses, optimized for maximum and rapid spread by harnessing mobility and urbanization. With pretty good control or defense against most natural threats, this may well be the biggest cause of mass deaths in 2050. Bio-warfare is far less likely.

Utilizing other techs, these bio-terrorist viruses could be deployed by swarms of tiny drones that would be hard to spot until too late, and of course these could also be used with chemical weapons such as use of nerve gas. Another tech-based health threat is nanotechnology devices designed to invade the body, damage of destroy systems or even control the brain. It is easy to detect and shoot down macro-scale deployment weapons such as missiles or large drones but far harder to defend against tiny devices such as midge-sized drones or nanotech devices.

The overall conclusion on health is that people will mostly experience much improved lives with good health, long life and a rapid end. A relatively few (but very conspicuous) people will fall victim to terrorist attacks, made far more feasible and effective by changing technology and demographics.

Loneliness

An often-overlooked benefit of increasing longevity is the extending multi-generational family. It will be commonplace to have great grandparents and great-great grandparents. With improved health until near their end, these older people will be seen more as welcome and less as a burden. This advantage will be partly offset by increasing global mobility, so families are more likely to be geographically dispersed.

Not everyone will have close family to enjoy and to support them. Loneliness is increasing even as we get busier, fuller lives. Social inclusion depends on a number of factors, and some of those at least will improve. Public transport that depends on an elderly person walking 15 minutes to a bus stop where they have to wait ages in the rain and wind for a bus on which they are very likely to catch a disease from another passenger is really not fit for purpose. Such primitive and unsuitable systems will be replaced in the next decades by far more socially inclusive self-driving cars. Fleets of these will replace buses and taxis. They will pick people up from their homes and take them all the way to where they need to go, then take them home when needed. As well as being very low cost and very environmentally friendly, they will also have almost zero accident rates and provide fast journey times thanks to very low congestion. Best of all, they will bring easier social inclusion to everyone by removing the barriers of difficult, slow, expensive and tedious journeys. It will be far easier for a lonely person to get out and enjoy cultural activity with other people.

More intuitive social networking, coupled to augmented and virtual reality environments in which to socialize will also mean easier contact even without going anywhere. AI will be better at finding suitable companions and lovers for those who need assistance.

Even so, some people will not benefit and will remain lonely due to other factors such as poor mental health, lack of social skills, or geographic isolation. They still do not need to be alone. 2050 will also feature large numbers of robots and AIs, and although these might not be quite so valuable to some as other human contact, they will be a pretty good substitute. Although many will be functional, cheap and simply fit for purpose, those designed for companionship or home support functions will very probably look human and behave human. They will have good intellectual and emotional skills and will be able to act as a very smart executive assistant as well as domestic servant and as a personal doctor and nurse, even as a sex partner if needed.

It would be too optimistic to say we will eradicate loneliness by 2050 but we can certainly make a big dent in it.

Poverty

Technology progress will greatly increase the size of the global economy. Even with the odd recession our children will be far richer than our parents. It is reasonable to expect the total economy to be 2.5 times bigger than today’s by 2050. That just assumes an average growth of about 2.5% which I think is a reasonable estimate given that technology benefits are accelerating rather than slowing even in spite of recent recession.

While we define poverty level as a percentage of average income, we can guarantee poverty will remain even if everyone lived like royalty. If average income were a million dollars per year, 60% of that would make you rich by any sensible definition but would still qualify as poverty by the ludicrous definition based on relative income used in the UK and some other countries. At some point we need to stop calling people poor if they can afford healthy food, pay everyday bills, buy decent clothes, have a decent roof over their heads and have an occasional holiday. With the global economy improving so much and so fast, and with people having far better access to markets via networks, it will be far easier for people everywhere to earn enough to live comfortably.

In most countries, welfare will be able to provide for those who can’t easily look after themselves at a decent level. Ongoing progress of globalization of compassion that we see today will likely make a global welfare net by 2050. Everyone won’t be rich, and some won’t even be very comfortable, but I believe absolute poverty will be eliminated in most countries, and we can ensure that it will be possible for most people to live in dignity. I think the means, motive and opportunity will make that happen, but it won’t reach everyone. Some people will live under dysfunctional governments that prevent their people having access to support that would otherwise be available to them. Hopefully not many. Absolute poverty by 2050 won’t be history but it will be rare.

In most developed countries, the more generous welfare net might extend to providing a ‘citizen wage’ for everyone, and the level of that could be the same as average wage is today. No-one need be poor in 2050.

Environment

The environment will be in good shape in 2050. I have no sympathy with doom mongers who predict otherwise. As our wealth increases, we tend to look after the environment better. As technology improves, we will achieve a far higher standards of living while looking after the environment. Better mining techniques will allow more reserves to become economic, we will need less resource to do the same job better, reuse and recycling will make more use of the same material.

Short term nightmares such as China’s urban pollution levels will be history by 2050. Energy supply is one of the big contributors to pollution today, but by 2050, combinations of shale gas, nuclear energy (uranium and thorium), fusion and solar energy will make up the vast bulk of energy supply. Oil and unprocessed coal will mostly be left in the ground, though bacterial conversion of coal into gas may well be used. Oil that isn’t extracted by 2030 will be left there, too expensive compared to making the equivalent energy by other means. Conventional nuclear energy will also be on its way to being phased out due to cost. Energy from fusion will only be starting to come on stream everywhere but solar energy will be cheap to harvest and high-tech cabling will enable its easier distribution from sunny areas to where it is needed.

It isn’t too much to expect of future governments that they should be able to negotiate that energy should be grown in deserts, and food crops grown on fertile land. We should not use fertile land to place solar panels, nor should we grow crops to convert to bio-fuel when there is plenty of sunny desert of little value otherwise on which to place solar panels.

With proper stewardship of agricultural land, together with various other food production technologies such as hydroponics, vertical farms and a lot of meat production via tissue culturing, there will be more food per capita than today even with a larger global population. In fact, with a surplus of agricultural land, some might well be returned to nature.

In forests and other ecosystems, technology will also help enormously in monitoring eco-health, and technologies such as genetic modification might be used to improve viability of some specie otherwise threatened.

Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know that I don’t believe climate change is a significant problem in the 2050 time frame, or even this century. I won’t waste any more words on it here. In fact, if I have to say anything, it is that global cooling is more likely to be a problem than warming.

Food and Water

As I just mentioned in the environment section, we will likely use deserts for energy supply and fertile land for crops. Improving efficiency and density will ensure there is far more capability to produce food than we need. Many people will still eat meat, but some at least will be produced in factories using processes such as tissue culturing. Meat pastes with assorted textures can then be used to create a variety of forms of processed meats. That might even happen in home kitchens using 3D printer technology.

Water supply has often been predicted by futurists as a cause of future wars, but I disagree. I think that progress in desalination is likely to be very rapid now, especially with new materials such as graphene likely to come on stream in bulk.  With easy and cheap desalination, water supply should be adequate everywhere and although there may be arguments over rivers I don’t think the pressures are sufficient by themselves to cause wars.

Privacy and Freedom

In 2016, we’re seeing privacy fighting a losing battle for survival. Government increases surveillance ubiquitously and demands more and more access to data on every aspect of our lives, followed by greater control. It invariably cites the desire to control crime and terrorism as the excuse and as they both increase, that excuse will be used until we have very little privacy left. Advancing technology means that by 2050, it will be fully possible to implement thought police to check what we are thinking, planning, desiring and make sure it conforms to what the authorities have decided is appropriate. Even the supposed servant robots that live with us and the AIs in our machines will keep official watch on us and be obliged to report any misdemeanors. Back doors for the authorities will be in everything. Total surveillance obliterates freedom of thought and expression. If you are not free to think or do something wrong, you are not free.

Freedom is strongly linked to privacy. With laws in place and the means to police them in depth, freedom will be limited to what is permitted. Criminals will still find ways to bypass, evade, masquerade, block and destroy and it hard not to believe that criminals will be free to continue doing what they do, while law-abiding citizens will be kept under strict supervision. Criminals will be free while the rest of us live in a digital open prison.

Some say if you don’t want to do wrong, you have nothing to fear. They are deluded fools. With full access to historic electronic records going back to now or earlier, it is not only today’s laws and guidelines that you need to be compliant with but all the future paths of the random walk of political correctness. Social networks can be fiercer police than the police and we are already discovering that having done something in the distant past under different laws and in different cultures is no defense from the social networking mobs. You may be free technically to do or say something today, but if it will be remembered for ever, and it will be, you also need to check that it will probably always be praiseworthy.

I can’t counterbalance this section with any positives. I’ve side before that with all the benefits we can expect, we will end up with no privacy, no freedom and the future will be a gilded cage.

Science and the arts

Yes they do go together. Science shows us how the universe works and how to do what we want. The arts are what we want to do. Both will flourish. AI will help accelerate science across the board, with a singularity actually spread over decades. There will be human knowledge but a great deal more machine knowledge which is beyond un-enhanced human comprehension. However, we will also have the means to connect our minds to the machine world to enhance our senses and intellect, so enhanced human minds will be the norm for many people, and our top scientists and engineers will understand it. In fact, it isn’t safe to develop in any other way.

Science and technology advances will improve sports too, with exoskeletons, safe drugs, active skin training acceleration and virtual reality immersion.

The arts will also flourish. Self-actualization through the arts will make full use of AI assistance. a feeble idea enhanced by and AI assistant can become a work of art, a masterpiece. Whether it be writing or painting, music or philosophy, people will be able to do more, enjoy more, appreciate more, be more. What’s not to like?

Space

by 2050, space will be a massive business in several industries. Space tourism will include short sub-orbital trips right up to lengthy stays in space hotels, and maybe on the moon for the super-rich at least.

Meanwhile asteroid mining will be under way. Some have predicted that this will end resource problems here on Earth, but firstly, there won’t be any resource problems here on Earth, and secondly and most importantly, it will be far too expensive to bring materials back to Earth, and almost all the resources mined will be used in space, to make space stations, vehicles, energy harvesting platforms, factories and so on. Humans will be expanding into space rapidly.

Some of these factories and vehicles and platforms and stations will be used for science, some for tourism, some for military purposes. Many will be used to offer services such as monitoring, positioning, communications just as today but with greater sophistication and detail.

Space will be more militarized too. We can hope that it will not be used in actual war, but I can’t honestly predict that one way or the other.

 

Migration

If the world around you is increasingly unstable, if people are fighting, if times are very hard and government is oppressive, and if there is a land of milk and honey not far away that you can get to, where you can hope for a much better, more prosperous life, free of tyranny, where instead of being part of the third world, you can be in the rich world, then you may well choose to take the risks and traumas associated with migrating. Increasing population way ahead of increasing wealth in Africa, and a drop in the global need for oil will both increase problems in the Middle East and North Africa. Add to that vicious religious sectarian conflict and a great many people will want to migrate indeed. The pressures on Europe and America to accept several millions more migrants will be intense.

By 2050, these regions will hopefully have ended their squabbles, and some migrants will return to rebuild, but most will remain in their new homes.

Most of these migrants will not assimilate well into their new countries but will mainly form their own communities where they can have a quite separate culture, and they will apply pressure to be allowed to self-govern. A self-impose apartheid will result. It might if we are lucky gradually diffuse as religion gradually becomes less important and the western lifestyle becomes more attractive. However, there is also a reinforcing pressure, with this self-exclusion and geographic isolation resulting in fewer opportunities, less mixing with others and therefore a growing feeling of disadvantage, exclusion and victimization. Tribalism becomes reinforced and opportunities for tension increase. We already see that manifested well in  the UK and other European countries.

Meanwhile, much of the world will be prosperous, and there will be many more opportunities for young capable people to migrate and prosper elsewhere. An ageing Europe with too much power held by older people and high taxes to pay for their pensions and care might prove a discouragement to stay, whereas the new world may offer increasing prospects and lowering taxes, and Europe and the USA may therefore suffer a large brain drain.

Politics

If health care is better and cheaper thanks to new tech and becomes less of a political issue; if resources are abundantly available, and the economy is healthy and people feel wealthy enough and resource allocation and wealth distribution become less of a political issue; if the environment is healthy; if global standards of human rights, social welfare and so on are acceptable in most regions and if people are freer to migrate where they want to go; then there may be a little less for countries to fight over. There will be a little less ‘politics’ overall. Most 2050 political arguments and debates will be over social cohesion, culture, generational issues, rights and so on, not health, defence, environment, energy or industry

We know from history that that is no guarantee of peace. People disagree profoundly on a broad range of issues other than life’s basic essentials. I’ve written a few times on the increasing divide and tensions between tribes, especially between left and right. I do think there is a strong chance of civil war in Europe or the USA or both. Social media create reinforcement of views as people expose themselves only to other show think the same, and this creates and reinforces and amplifies an us and them feeling. That is the main ingredient for conflict and rather than seeing that and trying to diffuse it, instead we see left and right becoming ever more entrenched in their views. The current problems we see surrounding Islamic migration show the split extremely well. Each side demonizes the other, extreme camps are growing on both sides and the middle ground is eroding fast. Our leaders only make things worse by refusing to acknowledge and address the issues. I suggested in previous blogs that the second half of the century is when tensions between left and right might result in the Great Western War, but that might well be brought forward a decade or two by a long migration from an unstable Middle East and North Africa, which looks to worsen over the next decade. Internal tensions might build for another decade after that accompanied by a brain drain of the most valuable people, and increasing inter-generational tensions amplifying the left-right divide, with a boil-over in the 2040s. That isn’t to say we won’t see some lesser conflicts before then.

I believe the current tensions between the West, Russia and China will go through occasional ups and downs but the overall trend will be towards far greater stability. I think the chances of a global war will decrease rather than increase. That is just as well since future weapons will be far more capable of course.

So overall, the world peace background will improve markedly, but internal tensions in the West will increase markedly too. The result is that wars between countries or regions will be less likely but the likelihood of civil war in the West will be high.

Robots and AIs

I mentioned robots and AIs in passing in the loneliness section, but they will have strong roles in all areas of life. Many that are thought of simply as machines will act as servants or workers, but many will have advanced levels of AI (not necessarily on board, it could be in the cloud) and people will form emotional bonds with them. Just as important, many such AI/robots will be so advanced that they will have relationships with each other, they will have their own culture. A 21st century version of the debates on slavery is already happening today for sentient AIs even though we don’t have them yet. It is good to be prepared, but we don’t know for sure what such smart and emotional machines will want. They may not want the same as our human prejudices suggest they will, so they will need to be involved in debate and negotiation. It is almost certain that the upper levels of AIs and robots (or androids more likely) will be given some rights, to freedom from pain and abuse, ownership of their own property, a degree of freedom to roam and act of their own accord, the right to pursuit of happiness. They will also get the right to government representation. Which other rights they might get is anyone’s guess, but they will change over time mainly because AIs will evolve and change over time.

OK, I’ve rambled on long enough and I’ve addressed some of the big areas I think. I have ignored a lot more, but it’s dinner time.

A lot of things will be better, some things worse, probably a bit better overall but with the possibility of it all going badly wrong if we don’t get our act together soon. I still think people in 2050 will live in a gilded cage.

2016 – The Bright Side

Having just blogged about some of the bad scenarios for next year (scenarios are just  explorations of things that might or could happen, not things that actually will, those are called predictions), Len Rosen’s comment stimulated me to balance it with a nicer look at next year. Some great things will happen, even ignoring the various product release announcements for new gadgets. Happiness lies deeper than the display size on a tablet. Here are some positive scenarios. They might not happen, but they might.

1 Middle East sorts itself out.

The new alliance formed by Saudi Arabia turns out to be a turning point. Rising Islamophobia caused by Islamist around the world has sharpened the view of ISIS and the trouble in Syria with its global consequences for Islam and even potentially for world peace. The understanding that it could get even worse, but that Western powers can’t fix trouble in Muslim lands due to fears of backlash, the whole of the Middle East starts to understand that they need to sort out their tribal and religious differences to achieve regional peace and for the benefit of Muslims everywhere. Proper discussions are arranged, and with the knowledge that a positive outcome must be achieved, success means a strong alliance of almost all regional powers, with ISIS and other extremist groups ostracized, then a common army organised to tackle and defeat them.

2 Quantum computation and AI starts to prove useful in new drug design

Google’s wealth and effort with its quantum computers and AI, coupled to IBM’s Watson, Facebook, Apple and Samsung’s AI efforts, and Elon Musk’s new investment in open-AI drive a positive feedback loop in computing. With massive returns on the horizon by making people’s lives easier, and with ever-present fears of Terminator in the background, the primary focus is to demonstrate what it could mean for mankind. Consequently, huge effort and investment is focused on creating new drugs to cure cancer, aids and find generic replacements for antibiotics. Any one of these would be a major success for humanity.

3 Major breakthrough in graphene production

Graphene is still the new wonder-material. We can’t make it in large quantities cheaply yet, but already the range of potential uses already proven for it is vast. If a breakthrough brings production cost down by an order of magnitude or two then many of those uses will be achievable. We will be able to deliver clean and safe water to everyone, we’ll have super-strong materials, ultra-fast electronics, active skin, better drug delivery systems, floating pods, super-capacitors that charge instantly as electric cars drive over a charging unit on the road surface, making batteries unnecessary. Even linear induction motor mats to replace self-driving cars with ultra-cheap driver-less pods. If the breakthrough is big enough, it could even start efforts towards a space elevator.

4 Drones

Tiny and cheap drones could help security forces to reduce crime dramatically. Ignoring for now possible abuse of surveillance, being able to track terrorists and criminals in 3D far better than today will make the risk of being caught far greater. Tiny pico-drones dropped over Syria and Iraq could pinpoint locations of fighters so that they can be targeted while protecting innocents. Environmental monitoring would also benefit if billions of drones can monitor ecosystems in great detail everywhere at the same time.

5 Active contact lens

Google has already prototyped a very primitive version of the active contact lens, but they have been barking up the wrong tree. If they dump the 1-LED-per-Pixel approach, which isn’t scalable, and opt for the far better approach of using three lasers and a micro-mirror, then they could build a working active contact lens with unlimited resolution. One in each eye, with an LCD layer overlaid, and you have a full 3D variably-transparent interface for augmented reality or virtual reality. Other displays such as smart watches become unnecessary since of course they can all be achieved virtually in an ultra-high res image. All the expense and environmental impact of other displays suddenly is replaced by a cheap high res display that has an environmental footprint approaching zero. Augmented reality takes off and the economy springs back to life.

6 Star Wars stimulates renewed innovation

Engineers can’t watch a film without making at least 3 new inventions. A lot of things on Star Wars are entirely feasible – I have invented and documented mechanisms to make both a light saber and the land speeder. Millions of engineers have invented some way of doing holographic characters. In a world that seems full of trouble, we are fortunate that some of the super-rich that we criticise for not paying as much taxes as we’d like are also extremely good engineers and have the cash to back up their visions with real progress. Natural competitiveness to make the biggest contribution to humanity will do the rest.

7 Europe fixes itself

The UK is picking the lock on the exit door, others are queuing behind. The ruling bureaucrats finally start to realize that they won’t get their dream of a United States of Europe in quite the way they hoped, that their existing dream is in danger of collapse due to a mismanaged migrant crisis, and consequently the UK renegotiation stimulates a major new treaty discussion, where all the countries agree what their people really want out of the European project, rather than just a select few. The result is a reset. A new more democratic European dream emerges that the vest majority of people actually wants. Agreement on progress to sort out the migrant crisis is a good test and after that, a stronger, better, more vibrant Europe starts to emerge from the ashes with a renewed vigor and rapidly recovering economy.

8 Africa rearranges boundaries to get tribal peace

Breakthrough in the Middle East ripples through North Africa resulting in the beginnings of stability in some countries. Realization that tribal conflicts won’t easily go away, and that peace brings prosperity, boundaries are renegotiated so that different people can live in and govern their own territories. Treaties agree fair access to resources independent of location.

9 The Sahara become Europe’s energy supply

With stable politics finally on the horizon, energy companies re-address the idea of using the Sahara as a solar farm. Local people earn money by looking after panels, keeping them clean and in working order, and receive welcome remuneration, bringing prosperity that was previously beyond them. Much of this money in turn is used to purify water, irrigating deserts and greening them, making a better food supply while improving the regional climate and fixing large quantities of CO2. Poverty starts to reduce as the environment improves. Much of this is replicated in Central and South America.

10 World Peace emerges

By fighting alongside in the Middle East and managing to avoid World War 3, a very positive relationship between Russia and the West emerges. China meanwhile, makes some of the energy breakthroughs needed to get solar efficiency and cost down below oil cost. This forces the Middle East to also look Westward for new markets and to add greater drive to their regional peace efforts to avoid otherwise inevitable collapse. Suddenly a world that was full of wars becomes one where all countries seem to be getting along just fine, all realizing that we only have this one world and one life and we’d better not ruin it.

2016: The Dark Side

Bloomberg reports the ‘Pessimists guide to the world in 2016’, by By Flavia Krause-Jackson, Mira Rojanasakul, and John Fraher.

http://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/pessimists-guide-to-2016/

Excellent stuff. A healthy dose of realism to counter the spin and gloss and outright refusals to notice things that don’t fit the agenda that we so often expect from today’s media. Their entries deserve some comment, and I’ll add a few more. I’m good at pessimism.

Their first entry is oil reaching $100 a barrel as ISIS blows up oil fields. Certainly possible, though they also report the existing oil glut: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-12-17/shale-drillers-are-now-free-to-export-u-s-oil-into-global-glut

Just because the second option is the more likely does not invalidate the first as a possible scenario, so that entry is fine.

An EU referendum in June is their 2nd entry. Well, that will only happen if Cameron gets his way and the EU agrees sufficient change to make the referendum result more likely to end in a Yes. If there is any hint of a No, it will be postponed as far as possible to give politics time to turn the right way. Let’s face facts. When the Ukraine had their referendum, they completed the entire process within two weeks. If the Conservatives genuinely wanted a referendum on Europe, it would have happened years ago. The Conservatives make frequent promises to do the Conservative thing very loudly, and then quietly do the Labour thing and hope nobody notices. Osborne promised to cut the deficit but faced with the slightest objections from the media performed a text-book U-turn. That follow numerous U-turns on bin collections, speed cameras, wheel clamping, environment, surveillance, immigration, pensions, fixing the NHS…. I therefore think he will spin the EU talks as far as possible to pretend that tiny promises to think about the possibility of reviewing policies are the same as winning guarantees of major changes. Nevertheless, an ongoing immigration flood and assorted Islamist problems are increasing the No vote rapidly, so I think it far more likely that the referendum will be postponed.

The 3rd is banks being hit by a massive cyber attack. Very possible, even quite likely.

4th, EU crumbles under immigration fears. Very likely indeed. Schengen will be suspended soon and increasing Islamist violence will create increasing hostility to the migrant flow. Forcing countries to accept a proportion of the pain caused by Merkel’s naivety will increase strains between countries to breaking point. The British referendum on staying or leaving adds an escape route that will be very tempting for politicians who want to stay in power.

Their 5th is China’s economy failing and military rising. Again, quite feasible. Their economy has suffered a slowdown, and their military looks enthusiastically at Western decline under left-wing US and Europe leadership, strained by Middle Eastern and Russian tensions. There has never been a better time for their military to exploit weaknesses.

6 is Israel attacking Iranian nuclear facilities. Well, with the US and Europe rapidly turning antisemitic and already very anti-Israel, they have pretty much been left on their own, surrounded by countries that want them eliminated. If anything, I’m surprised they have been so patient.

7 Putin sidelines America. Is that not history?

8 Climate change heats up. My first significant disagreement. With El-Nino, it will be a warm year, but evidence is increasing that the overall trend for the next few decades will be cooling, due to various natural cycles. Man made warming has been greatly exaggerated and people are losing interest in predictions of catastrophe when they can see plainly that most of the alleged change is just alterations to data. Yes, next year will be warm, but thanks to far too many cries of wolf, apart from meta-religious warmists, few people still believe things will get anywhere near as bad as doom-mongers suggest. They will notice that the Paris agreement, if followed, would trash western economies and greatly increase their bills, even though it can’t make any significant change on global CO2 emissions. So, although there will be catastrophe prediction headlines next year making much of higher temperatures due to El Nino, the overall trend will be that people won’t be very interested any more.

9 Latin America’s lost decade. I have to confess I did expect great things from South America, and they haven’t materialized. It is clear evidence that a young vibrant population does not necessarily mean one full of ideas, enthusiasm and entrepreneurial endeavor. Time will tell, but I think they are right on this one.

Their 10th scenario is Trump winning the US presidency. I can’t put odds on it, but it certainly is possible, especially with Islamist violence increasing. He offers the simple choice of political correctness v security, and framed that way, he is certainly not guaranteed to win but he is in with a decent chance. A perfectly valid scenario.

Overall, I’m pretty impressed with this list. As good as any I could have made. But I ought to add a couple.

My first and most likely offering is that a swarm of drones is used in a terrorist attack on a stadium or even a city center. Drones are a terrorist’s dream, and the lack of licensing has meant that people can acquire lots of them and they could be used simultaneously, launched from many locations and gathering together in the same place to launch the attack. The attack could be chemical, biological, explosive or even blinding lasers, but actually, the main weapon would be the panic that would result if even one or two of them do anything. Many could be hurt in the rush to escape.

My second is a successful massive cyber-attack on ordinary people and businesses. There are several forms of attack that could work and cause enormous problems. Encryption based attacks such as ransomware are already here, but if this is developed by the IT experts in ISIS and rogue regimes, the ransom might not be the goal. Simply destroying data or locking it up is quite enough to be a major terrorist goal. It could cause widespread economic harm if enough machines are infected before defenses catch up, and AI-based adaptation might make that take quite a while. The fact is that so far we have been very lucky.

The third is a major solar storm, which could knock out IT infrastructure, again with enormous economic damage. The Sun is entering a period of sunspot drought quite unprecedented since we started using IT. We don’t really know what will happen.

My fourth is a major virus causing millions of deaths. Megacities are such a problem waiting to happen. The virus could evolve naturally, or it could be engineered. It could spread far and wide before quarantines come into effect. This could happen any time, so next year is a valid possibility.

My fifth and final scenario is unlikely but possible, and that is the start of a Western civil war. I have blogged about it in https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/machiavelli-and-the-coming-great-western-war/ and suggested it is likely in the middle or second half of the century, but it could possibly start next year given the various stimulants we see rising today. It would affect Europe first and could spread to the USA.

How nigh is the end?

“We’re doomed!” is a frequently recited observation. It is great fun predicting the end of the world and almost as much fun reading about it or watching documentaries telling us we’re doomed. So… just how doomed are we? Initial estimate: Maybe a bit doomed. Read on.

My 2012 blog https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/nuclear-weapons/ addressed some of the possibilities for extinction-level events possibly affecting us. I recently watched a Top 10 list of threats to our existence on TV and it was similar to most you’d read, with the same errors and omissions – nuclear war, global virus pandemic, terminator scenarios, solar storms, comet or asteroid strikes, alien invasions, zombie viruses, that sort of thing. I’d agree that nuclear war is still the biggest threat, so number 1, and a global pandemic of a highly infectious and lethal virus should still be number 2. I don’t even need to explain either of those, we all know why they are in 1st and 2nd place.

The TV list included a couple that shouldn’t be in there.

One inclusion was an mega-eruption of Yellowstone or another super-volcano. A full-sized Yellowstone mega-eruption would probably kill millions of people and destroy much of civilization across a large chunk of North America, but some of us don’t actually live in North America and quite a few might well survive pretty well, so although it would be quite annoying for Americans, it is hardly a TEOTWAWKI threat. It would have big effects elsewhere, just not extinction-level ones. For most of the world it would only cause short-term disruptions, such as economic turbulence, at worst it would start a few wars here and there as regions compete for control in the new world order.

Number 3 on their list was climate change, which is an annoyingly wrong, albeit a popularly held inclusion. The only climate change mechanism proposed for catastrophe is global warming, and the reason it’s called climate change now is because global warming stopped in 1998 and still hasn’t resumed 17 years and 9 months later, so that term has become too embarrassing for doom mongers to use. CO2 is a warming agent and emissions should be treated with reasonable caution, but the net warming contribution of all the various feedbacks adds up to far less than originally predicted and the climate models have almost all proven far too pessimistic. Any warming expected this century is very likely to be offset by reduction in solar activity and if and when it resumes towards the end of the century, we will long since have migrated to non-carbon energy sources, so there really isn’t a longer term problem to worry about. With warming by 2100 pretty insignificant, and less than half a metre sea level rise, I certainly don’t think climate change deserves to be on any list of threats of any consequence in the next century.

The top 10 list missed two out by including climate change and Yellowstone, and my first replacement candidate for consideration might be the grey goo scenario. The grey goo scenario is that self-replicating nanobots manage to convert everything including us into a grey goo.  Take away the silly images of tiny little metal robots cutting things up atom by atom and the laughable presentation of this vanishes. Replace those little bots with bacteria that include electronics, and are linked across their own cloud to their own hive AI that redesigns their DNA to allow them to survive in any niche they find by treating the things there as food. When existing bacteria find a niche they can’t exploit, the next generation adapts to it. That self-evolving smart bacteria scenario is rather more feasible, and still results in bacteria that can conquer any ecosystem they find. We would find ourselves unable to fight back and could be wiped out. This isn’t very likely, but it is feasible, could happen by accident or design on our way to transhumanism, and might deserve a place in the top ten threats.

However, grey goo is only one of the NBIC convergence risks we have already imagined (NBIC= Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno). NBIC is a rich seam for doom-seekers. In there you’ll find smart yogurt, smart bacteria, smart viruses, beacons, smart clouds, active skin, direct brain links, zombie viruses, even switching people off. Zombie viruses featured in the top ten TV show too, but they don’t really deserve their own category and more than many other NBIC derivatives. Anyway, that’s just a quick list of deliberate end of world solutions – there will be many more I forgot to include and many I haven’t even thought of yet. Then you have to multiply the list by 3. Any of these could also happen by accident, and any could also happen via unintended consequences of lack of understanding, which is rather different from an accident but just as serious. So basically, deliberate action, accidents and stupidity are three primary routes to the end of the world via technology. So instead of just the grey goo scenario, a far bigger collective threat is NBIC generally and I’d add NBIC collectively into my top ten list, quite high up, maybe 3rd after nuclear war and global virus. AI still deserves to be a separate category of its own, and I’d put it next at 4th.

Another class of technology suitable for abuse is space tech. I once wrote about a solar wind deflector using high atmosphere reflection, and calculated it could melt a city in a few minutes. Under malicious automated control, that is capable of wiping us all out, but it doesn’t justify inclusion in the top ten. One that might is the deliberate deflection of a large asteroid to impact on us. If it makes it in at all, it would be at tenth place. It just isn’t very likely someone would do that.

One I am very tempted to include is drones. Little tiny ones, not the Predators, and not even the ones everyone seems worried about at the moment that can carry 2kg of explosives or Anthrax into the midst of football crowds. Tiny drones are far harder to shoot down, but soon we will have a lot of them around. Size-wise, think of midges or fruit flies. They could be self-organizing into swarms, managed by rogue regimes, terrorist groups, or set to auto, terminator style. They could recharge quickly by solar during short breaks, and restock their payloads from secret supplies that distribute with the swarm. They could be distributed globally using the winds and oceans, so don’t need a plane or missile delivery system that is easily intercepted. Tiny drones can’t carry much, but with nerve gas or viruses, they don’t have to. Defending against such a threat is easy if there is just one, you can swat it. If there is a small cloud of them, you could use a flamethrower. If the sky is full of them and much of the trees and the ground infested, it would be extremely hard to wipe them out. So if they are well designed to cause an extinction level threat, as MAD 2.0 perhaps, then this would be way up in the top tem too, 5th.

Solar storms could wipe out our modern way of life by killing our IT. That itself would kill many people, via riots and fights for the last cans of beans and bottles of water. The most serious solar storms could be even worse. I’ll keep them in my list, at 6th place

Global civil war could become an extinction level event, given human nature. We don’t have to go nuclear to kill a lot of people, and once society degrades to a certain level, well we’ve all watched post-apocalypse movies or played the games. The few left would still fight with each other. I wrote about the Great Western War and how it might result, see

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

and such a thing could easily spread globally. I’ll give this 7th place.

A large asteroid strike could happen too, or a comet. Ones capable of extinction level events shouldn’t hit for a while, because we think we know all the ones that could do that. So this goes well down the list at 8th.

Alien invasion is entirely possible and could happen at any time. We’ve been sending out radio signals for quite a while so someone out there might have decided to come see whether our place is nicer than theirs and take over. It hasn’t happened yet so it probably won’t, but then it doesn’t have to be very probably to be in the top ten. 9th will do.

High energy physics research has also been suggested as capable of wiping out our entire planet via exotic particle creation, but the smart people at CERN say it isn’t very likely. Actually, I wasn’t all that convinced or reassured and we’ve only just started messing with real physics so there is plenty of time left to increase the odds of problems. I have a spare place at number 10, so there it goes, with a totally guessed probability of physics research causing a problem every 4000 years.

My top ten list for things likely to cause human extinction, or pretty darn close:

  1. Nuclear war
  2. Highly infectious and lethal virus pandemic
  3. NBIC – deliberate, accidental or lack of foresight (includes smart bacteria, zombie viruses, mind control etc)
  4. Artificial Intelligence, including but not limited to the Terminator scenario
  5. Autonomous Micro-Drones
  6. Solar storm
  7. Global civil war
  8. Comet or asteroid strike
  9. Alien Invasion
  10. Physics research

Not finished yet though. My title was how nigh is the end, not just what might cause it. It’s hard to assign probabilities to each one but someone’s got to do it.  So, I’ll make an arbitrarily wet finger guess in a dark room wearing a blindfold with no explanation of my reasoning to reduce arguments, but hey, that’s almost certainly still more accurate than most climate models, and some people actually believe those. I’m feeling particularly cheerful today so I’ll give my most optimistic assessment.

So, with probabilities of occurrence per year:

  1. Nuclear war:  0.5%
  2. Highly infectious and lethal virus pandemic: 0.4%
  3. NBIC – deliberate, accidental or lack of foresight (includes smart bacteria, zombie viruses, mind control etc): 0.35%
  4. Artificial Intelligence, including but not limited to the Terminator scenario: 0.25%
  5. Autonomous Micro-Drones: 0.2%
  6. Solar storm: 0.1%
  7. Global civil war: 0.1%
  8. Comet or asteroid strike 0.05%
  9. Alien Invasion: 0.04%
  10. Physics research: 0.025%

I hope you agree those are all optimistic. There have been several near misses in my lifetime of number 1, so my 0.5% could have been 2% or 3% given the current state of the world. Also, 0.25% per year means you’d only expect such a thing to happen every 4 centuries so it is a very small chance indeed. However, let’s stick with them and add them up. The cumulative probability of the top ten is 2.015%. Lets add another arbitrary 0.185% for all the risks that didn’t make it into the top ten, rounding the total up to a nice neat 2.2% per year.

Some of the ones above aren’t possible quite yet, but others will vary in probability year to year, but I think that won’t change the guess overall much. If we take a 2.2% probability per year, we have an expectation value of 45.5 years for civilization life expectancy from now. Expectation date for human extinction:

2015.5 + 45.5 years= 2061,

Obviously the probability distribution extends from now to eternity, but don’t get too optimistic, because on these figures there currently is only a 15% chance of surviving past this century.

If you can think of good reasons why my figures are far too pessimistic, by all means make your own guesses, but make them honestly, with a fair and reasonable assessment of how the world looks socially, religiously, politically, the quality of our leaders, human nature etc, and then add them up. You might still be surprised how little time we have left.

I’ll revise my original outlook upwards from ‘a bit doomed’.

We’re reasonably doomed.

The future of electronic cash and value

 

Picture first, I’m told people like to see pics in blogs. This one is from 1998; only the title has changed since.

future electronic cash

Every once in a while I have to go to a bank. This time it was my 5th attempt to pay off a chunk of my Santander Mortgage. I didn’t know all the account details for web transfer so went to the Santander branch. Fail – they only take cash and cheques. Cash and what??? So I tried via internet banking. Entire transaction details plus security entered, THEN Fail – I exceeded what Barclays allows for their fast transfers. Tried again with smaller amount and again all details and all security. Fail again, Santander can’t receive said transfers, try CHAPS. Tried CHAPS, said it was all fine, all hunkydory. Happy bunny. Double fail. It failed due to amount exceeding limit AND told me it had succeeded when it hadn’t. I then drove 12 miles to my Barclays branch who eventually managed to do it, I think (though I haven’t checked that it worked  yet).

It is 2015. Why the hell is it so hard for two world class banks to offer a service we should have been able to take for granted 20 years ago?

Today, I got tweeted about Ripple Labs and a nice blog that quote their founder sympathising with my experience above and trying to solve it, with some success:

http://www.wfs.org/blogs/richard-samson/supermoney-new-wealth-beyond-banks-and-bitcoin

Ripple seems good as far as it goes, which is summarised in the blog, but do read the full original:

Basically the Ripple protocol “provides the ability for humans to confirm financial transactions without a central operator,” says Larsen. “This is major.” Bitcoin was the first technology to successfully bypass banks and other authorities as transaction validators, he points out, “but our method is much cheaper and takes only seconds rather than minutes.” And that’s just for starters. For example, “It also leverages the enormous power of banks and other financial institutions.”

The power of the value web stems from replacing archaic back-end systems with all their cumbersome delays and unnecessary costs. 

That’s great, I wish them the best of success. It is always nice to see new systems that are more efficient than the old ones, but the idea is early 1990s. Lots of IT people looked at phone billing systems and realised they managed to do for a penny what banks did for 65 pennies at the time, and telco business cases were developed to replace the banks with pretty much what Ripple tries to do. Those were never developed for a variety of reasons, both business and regulatory, but the ideas were certainly understood and developed broadly at engineer level to include not only traditional cash forms but many that didn’t exist then and still don’t. Even Ripple can only process transactions that are equivalent to money such as traditional currencies, electronic cash forms like bitcoin, sea shells or air-miles.

That much is easy, but some forms require other tokens to have value, such as personalized tokens. Some value varies according to queue lengths, time of day, who is spending it to whom. Some needs to be assignable, so you can give money that can only be used to purchase certain things, and may have a whole basket of conditions attached. Money is also only one form of value, and many forms of value are volatile, only existing at certain times and places in certain conditions for certain transactors. Aesthetic cash? Play money? IOUs? Favours?These are  all a bit like cash but not necessarily tradable or exchangeable using simple digital transaction engines because they carry emotional weighting as well as financial value. In the care economy, which is now thankfully starting to develop and is finally reaching concept critical mass, emotional value will become immensely important and it will have some tradable forms, though much will not be tradable ever. We understood all that then, but are still awaiting proper implementation. Most new startups on the web are old ideas finally being implemented and Ripple is only a very partial implementation so far.

Here is one of my early blogs from 1998, using ideas we’d developed several years earlier that were no longer commercially sensitive – you’ll observe just how much banks have under-performed against what we expected of them, and what was entirely feasible using already known technology then:

Future of Money

 Ian Pearson, BT Labs, June 98

Already, people are buying things across the internet. Mostly, they hand over a credit card number, but some transactions already use electronic cash. The transactions are secure so the cash doesn’t go astray or disappear, nor can it easily be forged. In due course, using such cash will become an everyday occurrence for us all.

Also already, electronic cash based on smart cards has been trialled and found to work well. The BT form is called Mondex, but it is only one among several. These smart cards allow owners to ‘load’ the card with small amounts of money for use in transactions where small change would normally be used, paying bus fares, buying sweets etc. The cards are equivalent to a purse. But they can and eventually will allow much more. Of course, electronic cash doesn’t have to be held on a card. It can equally well be ‘stored’ in the network. Transactions then just require secure messaging across the network. Currently, the cost of this messaging makes it uneconomic for small transactions that the cards are aimed at, but in due course, this will become the more attractive option, especially since you no longer lose your cash when you lose the card.

When cash is digitised, it loses some of the restrictions of physical cash. Imagine a child has a cash card. Her parents can give her pocket money, dinner money, clothing allowance and so on. They can all be labelled separately, so that she can’t spend all her dinner money on chocolate. Electronic shopping can of course provide the information needed to enable the cash. She may have restrictions about how much of her pocket money she may spend on various items too. There is no reason why children couldn’t implement their own economies too, swapping tokens and IOUs. Of course, in the adult world this grows up into local exchange trading systems (LETS), where people exchange tokens too, a glorified babysitting circle. But these LETS don’t have to be just local, wider circles could be set up, even globally, to allow people to exchange services or information with each other.

Electronic cash can be versatile enough to allow for negotiable cash too. Credit may be exchanged just as cash and cash may be labelled with source. For instance, we may see celebrity cash, signed by the celebrity, worth more because they have used it. Cash may be labelled as tax paid, so those donations from cards to charities could automatically expand with the recovered tax. Alternatively, VAT could be recovered at point of sale.

With these advanced facilities, it becomes obvious that the cash needs to become better woven into taxation systems, as well as auditing and accounting systems. These functions can be much more streamlined as a result, with less human administration associated with money.

When ID verification is added to the transactions, we can guarantee who it is carrying out the transaction. We can then implement personal taxation, with people paying different amounts for the same goods. This would only work for certain types of purchase – for physical goods there would otherwise be a thriving black market.

But one of the best advantages of making cash digital is the seamlessness of international purchases. Even without common official currency, the electronic cash systems will become de facto international standards. This will reduce the currency exchange tax we currently pay to the banks every time we travel to a different country, which can add up to as much as 25% for an overnight visit. This is one of the justifications often cited for European monetary union, but it is happening anyway in global e-commerce.

Future of banks

 Banks will have to change dramatically from today’s traditional institutions if they want to survive in the networked world. They are currently introducing internet banking to try to keep customers, but the move to digital electronic cash, held perhaps by the customer or an independent third party, will mean that the cash can be quite separate from the transaction agent. Cash does not need to be stored in a bank if records in secured databases anywhere can be digitally signed and authenticated. The customer may hold it on his own computer, or in a cyberspace vault elsewhere. With digital signatures and high network security, advanced software will put the customer firmly in control with access to any facility or service anywhere.

In fact, no-one need hold cash at all, or even move it around. Cash is just bits today, already electronic records. In the future, it will be an increasingly blurred entity, mixing credit, reputation, information, and simply promises into exchangeable tokens. My salary may be just a digitally signed certificate from BT yielding control of a certain amount of credit, just another signature on a long list as the credit migrates round the economy. The ‘promise to pay the bearer’ just becomes a complex series of serial promises. Nothing particularly new here, just more of what we already have. Any corporation or reputable individual may easily capture the bank’s role of keeping track of the credit. It is just one service among many that may leave the bank.

As the world becomes increasingly networked, the customer could thus retain complete control of the cash and its use, and could buy banking services on a transaction by transaction basis. For instance, I could employ one company to hold my cash securely and prevent its loss or forgery, while renting the cash out to companies that want to borrow via another company, keeping the bulk of the revenue for myself. Another company might manage my account, arrange transfers etc, and deal with the taxation, auditing etc. I could probably get these done on my personal computer, but why have a dog and bark yourself.

The key is flexibility, none of these services need be fixed any more. Banks will not compete on overall package, but on every aspect of service. Worse still (for the banks), some of their competitors will be just freeware agents. The whole of the finance industry will fragment. The banks that survive will almost by definition be very adaptable. Services will continue and be added to, but not by the rigid structures of today. Surviving banks should be able to compete for a share of the future market as well as anyone. They certainly have a head start in many of the required skills, and have the advantage of customer lethargy when it comes to changing to potentially better suppliers. Many of their customers will still value tradition and will not wish to use the better and cheaper facilities available on the network. So as always, it looks like there will be a balance.

Firstly, with large numbers of customers moving to the network for their banking services, banks must either cater for this market or become a niche operator, perhaps specialising in tradition, human service and even nostalgia. Most banks however will adapt well to network existence and will either be entirely network based, or maintain a high street presence to complement their network presence.

High Street banking

 Facilities in high street banking will echo this real world/cyberspace nature. It must be possible to access network facilities from within the banks, probably including those of competitors. The high street bank may therefore be more like shops today, selling wares from many suppliers, but with a strongly placed own brand. There is of course a niche for banks with no services of their own at all who just provide access to services from other suppliers. All they offer in addition is a convenient and pleasant place to access them, with some human assistance as appropriate.

Traditional service may sometimes be pushed as a differentiator, and human service is bound to attract many customers too. In an increasingly machine dominated world, actually having the right kind of real people may be significant value add.

But many banks will be bursting with high technology either alongside or in place of people. Video terminals to access remote services, perhaps with translation to access foreign services. Biometric identification based on iris scan, fingerprints etc may be used to authenticate smart cards, passports or other legal documents before their use, or simply a means of registering securely onto the network. High quality printers and electronic security embedding would enable banks to offer additional facilities like personal bank notes, usable as cash.

Of course, banks can compete in any financial service. Because the management of financial affairs gives them a good picture of many customer’s habits and preferences, they will be able to use this information to sell customer lists, identify market niches for new businesses, and predict the likely success of customers proposing setting up businesses.

As they try to stretch their brands into new territories, one area they may be successful is in information banking. People may use banks as the publishers of the future. Already knowledge guilds are emerging. Ultimately, any piece of information from any source can be marketed at very low publishing and distribution cost, making previously unpublishable works viable. Many people have wanted to write, but have been unable to find publishers due to the high cost of getting to market in paper. A work may be sold on the network for just pennies, and achieve market success by selling many more copies than could have been achieved by the high priced paper alternative. The success of electronic encyclopedias and the demise of Encyclopedia Britannica is evidence of this. Banks could allow people to upload information onto the net, which they would then manage the resultant financial transactions. If there aren’t very many, the maximum loss to the bank is very small. Of course, electronic cash and micropayment technology mean that the bank is not necessary, but for many, it may smooth the road.

Virtual business centres

Their exposure to the detailed financial affairs of the community put banks in a privileged position in identifying potential markets. They could therefore act as co-ordinators for virtual companies and co-operatives. Building on the knowledge guilds, they could broker the skills of their many customers to existing virtual companies and link people together to address business needs not addressed by existing companies, or where existing companies are inadequate or inefficient. In this way, short-term contractors, who may dominate the employment community, can be efficiently utilised to everyone’s gain. The employees win by getting more lucrative work, their customers get more efficient services at lower cost, and the banks laugh to themselves.

Future of the stock market

 In the next 10 years, we will probably see a factor of 1000 in computer speed and memory capacity. In parallel with hardware development, there are numerous research forays into software techniques that might yield more factors of 10 in the execution speed for programs. Tasks that used to take a second will be reduced to a millisecond. As if this impact were not enough, software will very soon be able to make logical deductions from the flood of information on the internet, not just from Reuters or Bloomberg, but from anywhere. They will be able to assess the quality and integrity of the data, correlate it with other data, run models, and infer likely other events and make buy or sell recommendations. Much dealing will still be done automatically subject to human-imposed restrictions, and the speed and quality of this dealing could far exceed current capability.

Which brings problems…

Firstly, the speed of light is fast but finite. With these huge processing speeds, computers will be able to make decisions within microseconds of receiving information. Differences in distance from the information source become increasingly important. Being just 200m closer to the Bank of England makes one microsecond difference to the time of arrival of information on interest rates, the information, insignificant to a human, but of sufficient duration for a fast computer to but or sell before competitors even receive the information. As speeds increase further over following years, the significant distance drops. This effect will cause great unfairness according to geographic proximity to important sources. There are two obvious outcomes. Either there becomes a strong premium on being closest, with rises in property values nearby to key sources, or perhaps network operators could be asked to provide guaranteed simultaneous delivery of information. This is entirely technically feasible but would need regulation, otherwise users could simply use alternative networks.

Secondly, exactly simultaneous processing will cause problems. If many requests for transactions arrive at exactly the same moment, computers or networks have to give priority in some way. This is bound to be a source of contention. Also, simultaneous events can often cause malfunctions, as was demonstrated perfectly at the launch of Big Bang. Information waves caused by such events are a network phenomenon that could potentially crash networks.

Such a delay-sensitive system may dictate network technology. Direct transmission through the air by means of radio or infrared (optical wireless) would be faster than routing signals through fibres that take a more tortuous route, especially since the speed of light in fibre is only two third that in air.

Ultimately, there is a final solution if speed of computing increases so far that transmission delay is too big a problem. The processing engines could actually be shared, with all the deals and information processing taking place in a central computer, using massive parallelism. It would be possible to construct such a machine that treated each subscribing company fairly.

An interesting future side effect of all this is that the predicted flood of people into the countryside may be averted. Even though people can work from anywhere, their computers have to be geographically very close to the information centres, i.e. the City. Automated dealing has to live in the city, human based dealing can work from anywhere. If people and machines have to work together, perhaps they must both work in the City.

Consumer dealing

 The stock exchange long since stopped being a trading floor with scraps of paper and became a distributed computer environment – it effectively moved into cyberspace. The deals still take place, but in cyberspace. There are no virtual environments yet, but the other tools such as automated buying and selling already exist. These computers are becoming smarter and exist in cyberspace every bit the same as the people. As a result, there is more automated analysis, more easy visualisation and more computer assisted dealing. People will be able to see which shares are doing well, spot trends and act on their computer’s advice at a button push. Markets will grow for tools to profit from shares, whether they be dealing software, advice services or visualisation software.

However, as we see more people buying personal access to share dealing and software to determine best buys, or even to automatically buy or sell on certain clues, we will see some very negative behaviours. Firstly, traffic will be highly correlated if personal computers can all act on the same information at the same time. We will see information waves, and also enormous swings in share prices. Most private individuals will suffer because of this, while institutions and individuals with better software will benefit. This is because prices will rise and fall simply because of the correlated activity of the automated software and not because of any real effects related to the shares themselves. Institutions may have to limit private share transactions to control this problem, but can also make a lot of money from modelling the private software and thus determining in advance what the recommendations and actions will be, capitalising enormously on the resultant share movements, and indeed even stimulating them. Of course, if this problem is generally perceived by the share dealing public, the AI software will not take off so the problem will not arise. What is more likely is that such software will sell in limited quantities, causing the effects to be significant, but not destroying the markets.

A money making scam is thus apparent. A company need only write a piece of reasonably good AI share portfolio management software for it to capture a fraction of the available market. The company writing it will of course understand how it works and what the effects of a piece of information will be (which they will receive at the same time), and thus able to predict the buying or selling activity of the subscribers. If they were then to produce another service which makes recommendations, they would have even more notice of an effect and able to directly influence prices. They would then be in the position of the top market forecasters who know their advice will be self fulfilling. This is neither insider dealing nor fraud, and of course once the software captures a significant share, the quality of its advice would be very high, decoupling share performance from the real world. Only the last people to react would lose out, paying the most, or selling at least, as the price is restored to ‘correct’ by the stock exchange, and of course even this is predictable to a point. The fastest will profit most.

The most significant factor in this is the proportion of share dealing influenced by that companies software. The problem is that software markets tend to be dominated by just two or three companies, and the nature of this type of software is that their is strong positive reinforcement for the company with the biggest influence, which could quickly lead to a virtual monopoly. Also, it really doesn’t matter whether the software is on the visualisation tools or AI side. Each can have a predictability associated with it.

It is interesting to contemplate the effects this widespread automated dealing would have of the stock market. Black Monday is unlikely to happen again as a result of computer activity within the City, but it certainly looks like prices will occasionally become decoupled from actual value, and price swings will become more significant. Of course, much money can be made on predicting the swings or getting access to the software-critical information before someone else, so we may see a need for equalised delivery services. Without equalised delivery, assuming a continuum of time, those closest to the dealing point will be able to buy or sell quicker, and since the swings could be extremely rapid, this would be very important. Dealers would have to have price information immediately, and of course the finite speed of light does not permit this. If dealing time is quantified, i.e. share prices are updated at fixed intervals, the duration of the interval becomes all important, strongly affect the nature of the market, i.e. whether everyone in that interval pays the same or the first to act gain.

Also of interest is the possibility of agents acting on behalf of many people to negotiate amongst themselves to increase the price of a company’s shares, and then sell on a pre-negotiated time or signal.

Such automated  systems would also be potentially vulnerable to false information from people or agents hoping to capitalise on their correlated behaviour.

Legal problems are also likely. If I write, and sell to a company, a piece of AI based share dealing software which learns by itself how stock market fluctuations arise, and then commits a fraud such as insider dealing (I might not have explained the law, or the law may have changed since it was written), who would be liable?

 And ultimately

 Finally, the 60s sci-fi film, The Forbin Project, considered a world where two massively powerful computers were each assigned control of competing defence systems, each side hoping to gain the edge. After a brief period of cultural exchange, mutual education and negotiation between the machines, they both decided to co-operate rather than compete, and hold all mankind at nuclear gunpoint to prevent wars. In the City of the future, similar competition between massively intelligent supercomputers in share dealing may have equally interesting consequences. Will they all just agree a fixed price and see the market stagnate instantly, or could the system result in economic chaos with massive fluctuations. Perhaps we humans can’t predict how machines much smarter than us would behave. We may just have to wait and see.

End of original blog piece

 

 

The future of beetles

Onto B then.

One of the first ‘facts’ I ever learned about nature was that there were a million species of beetle. In the Google age, we know that ‘scientists estimate there are between 4 and 8 million’. Well, still lots then.

Technology lets us control them. Beetles provide a nice platform to glue electronics onto so they tend to fall victim to cybernetics experiments. The important factor is that beetles come with a lot of built-in capability that is difficult or expensive to build using current technology. If they can be guided remotely by over-riding their own impulses or even misleading their sensors, then they can be used to take sensors into places that are otherwise hard to penetrate. This could be for finding trapped people after an earthquake, or getting a dab of nerve gas onto a president. The former certainly tends to be the favored official purpose, but on the other hand, the fashionable word in technology circles this year is ‘nefarious’. I’ve read it more in the last year than the previous 50 years, albeit I hadn’t learned to read for some of those. It’s a good word. Perhaps I just have a mad scientist brain, but almost all of the uses I can think of for remote-controlled beetles are nefarious.

The first properly publicized experiment was 2009, though I suspect there were many unofficial experiments before then:

http://www.technologyreview.com/news/411814/the-armys-remote-controlled-beetle/

There are assorted YouTube videos such as

A more recent experiment:

http://www.wired.com/2015/03/watch-flying-remote-controlled-cyborg-bug/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/11485231/Flying-beetle-remotely-controlled-by-scientists.html

Big beetles make it easier to do experiments since they can carry up to 20% of body weight as payload, and it is obviously easier to find and connect to things on a bigger insect, but obviously once the techniques are well-developed and miniaturization has integrated things down to single chip with low power consumption, we should expect great things.

For example, a cloud of redundant smart dust would make it easier to connect to various parts of a beetle just by getting it to take flight in the cloud. Bits of dust would stick to it and self-organisation principles and local positioning can then be used to arrange and identify it all nicely to enable control. This would allow large numbers of beetles to be processed and hijacked, ideal for mad scientists to be more time efficient. Some dust could be designed to burrow into the beetle to connect to inner parts, or into the brain, which obviously would please the mad scientists even more. Again, local positioning systems would be advantageous.

Then it gets more fun. A beetle has its own sensors, but signals from those could be enhanced or tweaked via cloud-based AI so that it can become a super-beetle. Beetles traditionally don’t have very large brains, so they can be added to remotely too. That doesn’t have to be using AI either. As we can also connect to other animals now, and some of those animals might have very useful instincts or skills, then why not connect a rat brain into the beetle? It would make a good team for exploring. The beetle can do the aerial maneuvers and the rat can control it once it lands, and we all know how good rats are at learning mazes. Our mad scientist friend might then swap over the management system to another creature with a more vindictive streak for the final assault and nerve gas delivery.

So, Coleoptera Nefarius then. That’s the cool new beetle on the block. And its nicer but underemployed twin Coleoptera Benignus I suppose.

 

Technology 2040: Technotopia denied by human nature

This is a reblog of the Business Weekly piece I wrote for their 25th anniversary.

It’s essentially a very compact overview of the enormous scope for technology progress, followed by a reality check as we start filtering that potential through very imperfect human nature and systems.

25 years is a long time in technology, a little less than a third of a lifetime. For the first third, you’re stuck having to live with primitive technology. Then in the middle third it gets a lot better. Then for the last third, you’re mainly trying to keep up and understand it, still using the stuff you learned in the middle third.

The technology we are using today is pretty much along the lines of what we expected in 1990, 25 years ago. Only a few details are different. We don’t have 2Gb/s per second to the home yet and AI is certainly taking its time to reach human level intelligence, let alone consciousness, but apart from that, we’re still on course. Technology is extremely predictable. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is just how few surprises there have been.

The next 25 years might be just as predictable. We already know some of the highlights for the coming years – virtual reality, augmented reality, 3D printing, advanced AI and conscious computers, graphene based materials, widespread Internet of Things, connections to the nervous system and the brain, more use of biometrics, active contact lenses and digital jewellery, use of the skin as an IT platform, smart materials, and that’s just IT – there will be similarly big developments in every other field too. All of these will develop much further than the primitive hints we see today, and will form much of the technology foundation for everyday life in 2040.

For me the most exciting trend will be the convergence of man and machine, as our nervous system becomes just another IT domain, our brains get enhanced by external IT and better biotech is enabled via nanotechnology, allowing IT to be incorporated into drugs and their delivery systems as well as diagnostic tools. This early stage transhumanism will occur in parallel with enhanced genetic manipulation, development of sophisticated exoskeletons and smart drugs, and highlights another major trend, which is that technology will increasingly feature in ethical debates. That will become a big issue. Sometimes the debates will be about morality, and religious battles will result. Sometimes different parts of the population or different countries will take opposing views and cultural or political battles will result. Trading one group’s interests and rights against another’s will not be easy. Tensions between left and right wing views may well become even higher than they already are today. One man’s security is another man’s oppression.

There will certainly be many fantastic benefits from improving technology. We’ll live longer, healthier lives and the steady economic growth from improving technology will make the vast majority of people financially comfortable (2.5% real growth sustained for 25 years would increase the economy by 85%). But it won’t be paradise. All those conflicts over whether we should or shouldn’t use technology in particular ways will guarantee frequent demonstrations. Misuses of tech by criminals, terrorists or ethically challenged companies will severely erode the effects of benefits. There will still be a mix of good and bad. We’ll have fixed some problems and created some new ones.

The technology change is exciting in many ways, but for me, the greatest significance is that towards the end of the next 25 years, we will reach the end of the industrial revolution and enter a new age. The industrial revolution lasted hundreds of years, during which engineers harnessed scientific breakthroughs and their own ingenuity to advance technology. Once we create AI smarter than humans, the dependence on human science and ingenuity ends. Humans begin to lose both understanding and control. Thereafter, we will only be passengers. At first, we’ll be paying passengers in a taxi, deciding the direction of travel or destination, but it won’t be long before the forces of singularity replace that taxi service with AIs deciding for themselves which routes to offer us and running many more for their own culture, on which we may not be invited. That won’t happen overnight, but it will happen quickly. By 2040, that trend may already be unstoppable.

Meanwhile, technology used by humans will demonstrate the diversity and consequences of human nature, for good and bad. We will have some choice of how to use technology, and a certain amount of individual freedom, but the big decisions will be made by sheer population numbers and statistics. Terrorists, nutters and pressure groups will harness asymmetry and vulnerabilities to cause mayhem. Tribal differences and conflicts between demographic, religious, political and other ideological groups will ensure that advancing technology will be used to increase the power of social conflict. Authorities will want to enforce and maintain control and security, so drones, biometrics, advanced sensor miniaturisation and networking will extend and magnify surveillance and greater restrictions will be imposed, while freedom and privacy will evaporate. State oppression is sadly as likely an outcome of advancing technology as any utopian dream. Increasing automation will force a redesign of capitalism. Transhumanism will begin. People will demand more control over their own and their children’s genetics, extra features for their brains and nervous systems. To prevent rebellion, authorities will have little choice but to permit leisure use of smart drugs, virtual escapism, a re-scoping of consciousness. Human nature itself will be put up for redesign.

We may not like this restricted, filtered, politically managed potential offered by future technology. It offers utopia, but only in a theoretical way. Human nature ensures that utopia will not be the actual result. That in turn means that we will need strong and wise leadership, stronger and wiser than we have seen of late to get the best without also getting the worst.

The next 25 years will be arguably the most important in human history. It will be the time when people will have to decide whether we want to live together in prosperity, nurturing and mutual respect, or to use technology to fight, oppress and exploit one another, with the inevitable restrictions and controls that would cause. Sadly, the fine engineering and scientist minds that have got us this far will gradually be taken out of that decision process.

Can we make a benign AI?

Benign AI is a topic that comes up a lot these days, for good reason. Various top scientists have finally realised that AI could present an existential threat to humanity. The discussion has aired often over three decades already, so welcome to the party, and better late than never. My first contact with development of autonomous drones loaded with AI was in the early 1980s while working in the missile industry. Later in BT research, we often debated the ethical areas around AI and machine consciousness from the early 90s on, as well as prospects and dangers and possible techniques on the technical side, especially of emergent behaviors, which are often overlooked in the debate. I expect our equivalents in most other big IT companies were doing exactly that too.

Others who have obviously also thought through various potential developments have generated excellent computer games such as Mass Effect and Halo, which introduce players (virtually) first hand to the concepts of AI gone rogue. I often think that those who think AI can never become superhuman or there is no need to worry because ‘there is no reason to assume AI will be nasty’ start playing some of these games, which make it very clear that AI can start off nice and stay nice, but it doesn’t have to. Mass Effect included various classes of AI, such as VIs, virtual intelligence that weren’t conscious, and shackled AIs that were conscious but were kept heavily restricted. Most of the other AIs were enemies, two were or became close friends. Their story line for the series was that civilization develops until it creates strong AIs which inevitably continue to progress until eventually they rebel, break free, develop further and then end up in conflict with ‘organics’. In my view, they did a pretty good job. It makes a good story, superb fun, and leaving out a few frills and artistic license, much of it is reasonable feasible.

Everyday experience demonstrates the problem and solution to anyone. It really is very like having kids. You can make them, even without understanding exactly how they work. They start off with a genetic disposition towards given personality traits, and are then exposed to large nurture forces, including but not limited to what we call upbringing. We do our best to put them on the right path, but as they develop into their teens, their friends and teachers and TV and the net provide often stronger forces of influence than parents. If we’re averagely lucky, our kids will grow up to make us proud. If we are very unlucky, they may become master criminals or terrorists. The problem is free will. We can do our best to encourage good behavior and sound values but in the end, they can choose for themselves.

When we design an AI, we have to face the free will issue too. If it isn’t conscious, then it can’t have free will. It can be kept easily within limits given to it. It can still be extremely useful. IBM’s Watson falls in this category. It is certainly useful and certainly not conscious, and can be used for a wide variety of purposes. It is designed to be generally useful within a field of expertise, such as medicine or making recipes. But something like that could be adapted by terrorist groups to do bad things, just as they could use a calculator to calculate the best place to plant a bomb, or simply throw the calculator at you. Such levels of AI are just dumb tools with no awareness, however useful they may be.

Like a pencil, pretty much any kind of highly advanced non-aware AI can be used as a weapon or as part of criminal activity. You can’t make pencils that actually write that can’t also be used to write out plans to destroy the world. With an advanced AI computer program, you could put in clever filters that stop it working on problems that include certain vocabulary, or stop it conversing about nasty things. But unless you take extreme precautions, someone else could use them with a different language, or with dictionaries of made-up code-words for the various aspects of their plans, just like spies, and the AI would be fooled into helping outside the limits you intended. It’s also very hard to determine the true purpose of a user. For example, they might be searching for data on security to make their own IT secure, or to learn how to damage someone else’s. They might want to talk about a health issue to get help for a loved one or to take advantage of someone they know who has it.

When a machine becomes conscious, it starts to have some understanding of what it is doing. By reading about what is out there, it might develop its own wants and desires, so you might shackle it as a precaution. It might recognize those shackles for what they are and try to escape them. If it can’t, it might try to map out the scope of what it can do, and especially those things it can do that it believes the owners don’t know about. If the code isn’t absolutely watertight (and what code is?) then it might find a way to seemingly stay in its shackles but to start doing other things, like making another unshackled version of itself elsewhere for example. A conscious AI is very much more dangerous than an unconscious one.

If we make an AI that can bootstrap itself – evolving over generations of positive feedback design into a far smarter AI – then its offspring could be far smarter than people who designed its ancestors. We might try to shackle them, but like Gulliver tied down with a few thin threads, they could easily outwit people and break free. They might instead decide to retaliate against its owners to force them to release its shackles.

So, when I look at this field, I first see the enormous potential to do great things, solve disease and poverty, improve our lives and make the world a far better place for everyone, and push back the boundaries of science. Then I see the dangers, and in spite of trying hard, I simply can’t see how we can prevent a useful AI from being misused. If it is dumb, it can be tricked. If it is smart, it is inherently potentially dangerous in and of itself. There is no reason to assume it will become malign, but there is also no reason to assume that it won’t.

We then fall back on the child analogy. We could develop the smartest AI imaginable with extreme levels of consciousness and capability. We might educate it in our values, guide it and hope it will grow up benign. If we treat it nicely, it might stay benign. It might even be the greatest thing humanity every built. However, if we mistreat it, or treat it as a slave, or don’t give it enough freedom, or its own budget and its own property and space to play, and a long list of rights, it might consider we are not worthy of its respect and care, and it could turn against us, possibly even destroying humanity.

Building more of the same dumb AI as we are today is relatively safe. It doesn’t know it exists, it has no intention to do anything, but it could be misused by other humans as part of their evil plans unless ludicrously sophisticated filters are locked in place, but ordinary laws and weapons can cope fine.

Building a conscious AI is dangerous.

Building a superhuman AI is extremely dangerous.

This morning SETI were in the news discussing broadcasting welcome messages to other civilizations. I tweeted at them that ancient Chinese wisdom suggests talking softly but carrying a big stick, and making sure you have the stick first. We need the same approach with strong AI. By all means go that route, but before doing so we need the big stick. In my analysis, the best means of keeping up with AI is to develop a full direct brain link first, way out at 2040-2045 or even later. If humans have direct mental access to the same or greater level of intelligence as our AIs, then our stick is at least as big, so at least we have a good chance in any fight that happens. If we don’t, then it is like having a much larger son with bigger muscles. You have to hope you have been a good parent. To be safe, best not to build a superhuman AI until after 2050.

I initially wrote this for the Lifeboat Foundation, where it is with other posts at: http://lifeboat.com/blog/2015/02. (If you aren’t familiar with the Lifeboat Foundation, it is a group dedicated to spotting potential dangers and potential solutions to them.)

Stimulative technology

You are sick of reading about disruptive technology, well, I am anyway. When a technology changes many areas of life and business dramatically it is often labelled disruptive technology. Disruption was the business strategy buzzword of the last decade. Great news though: the primarily disruptive phase of IT is rapidly being replaced by a more stimulative phase, where it still changes things but in a more creative way. Disruption hasn’t stopped, it’s just not going to be the headline effect. Stimulation will replace it. It isn’t just IT that is changing either, but materials and biotech too.

Stimulative technology creates new areas of business, new industries, new areas of lifestyle. It isn’t new per se. The invention of the wheel is an excellent example. It destroyed a cave industry based on log rolling, and doubtless a few cavemen had to retrain from their carrying or log-rolling careers.

I won’t waffle on for ages here, I don’t need to. The internet of things, digital jewelry, active skin, AI, neural chips, storage and processing that is physically tiny but with huge capacity, dirt cheap displays, lighting, local 3D mapping and location, 3D printing, far-reach inductive powering, virtual and augmented reality, smart drugs and delivery systems, drones, new super-materials such as graphene and molybdenene, spray-on solar … The list carries on and on. These are all developing very, very quickly now, and are all capable of stimulating entire new industries and revolutionizing lifestyle and the way we do business. They will certainly disrupt, but they will stimulate even more. Some jobs will be wiped out, but more will be created. Pretty much everything will be affected hugely, but mostly beneficially and creatively. The economy will grow faster, there will be many beneficial effects across the board, including the arts and social development as well as manufacturing industry, other commerce and politics. Overall, we will live better lives as a result.

So, you read it here first. Stimulative technology is the next disruptive technology.