Category Archives: architecture

Will urbanization continue or will we soon reach peak city?

For a long time, people have been moving from countryside into cities. The conventional futurist assumption is that this trend will continue, with many mega-cities, some with mega-buildings. I’ve consulted occasionally on future buildings and future cities from a technological angle, but I’ve never really challenged the assumption that urbanization will continue. It’s always good  to challenge our assumptions occasionally, as things can change quite rapidly.

There are forces in both directions. Let’s list those that support urbanisation first.

People are gregarious. They enjoy being with other people. They enjoy eating out and having coffees with friends. They like to go shopping. They enjoy cinemas and theatre and art galleries and museums. They still have workplaces. Many people want to live close to these facilities, where public transport is available or driving times are relatively short. There are exceptions of course, but these still generally apply.

Even though many people can and do work from home sometimes, most of them still go to work, where they actually meet colleagues, and this provides much-valued social contact, and in spite of recent social trends, still provides opportunities to meet new friends and partners. Similarly, they can and do talk to friends via social media or video calls, but still enjoy getting together for real.

Increasing population produces extra pressure on the environment, and governments often try to minimize it by restricting building on green field land. Developers are strongly encouraged to build on brown field sites as far as possible.

Now the case against.

Truly Immersive Interaction

Talking on the phone, even to a tiny video image, is less emotionally rich than being there with someone. It’s fine for chats in between physical meetings of course, but the need for richer interaction still requires ‘being there’. Augmented reality will soon bring headsets that provide high quality 3D life-sized images of the person, and some virtual reality kit will even allow analogs of physical interaction via smart gloves or body suits, making social comms a bit better. Further down the road, active skin will enable direct interaction with the peripheral nervous system to produce exactly the same nerve signals as an actual hug or handshake or kiss, while active contact lenses will provide the same resolution as your retina wherever you gaze. The long term is therefore communication which has the other person effectively right there with you, fully 3D, fully rendered to the capability of your eyes, so you won’t be able to tell they aren’t. If you shake hands or hug or kiss, you’ll feel it just the same as if they were there too. You will still know they are not actually there, so it will never be quite as emotionally rich as if they were, but it can get pretty close. Close enough perhaps that it won’t really matter to most people most of the time that it’s virtual.

In the same long term, many AIs will have highly convincing personalities, some will even have genuine emotions and be fully conscious. I blogged recently on how that might happen if you don’t believe it’s possible:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2018/06/04/biomimetic-insights-for-machine-consciousness/

None of the technology required for this is far away, and I believe a large IT company could produce conscious machines with almost human-level AI within a couple of years of starting the project. It won’t happen until they do, but when one starts trying seriously to do it, it really won’t be long. That means that as well as getting rich emotional interaction from other humans via networks, we’ll also get lots from AI, either in our homes, or on the cloud, and some will be in robots in our homes too.

This adds up to a strong reduction in the need to live in a city for social reasons.

Going to cinemas, theatre, shopping etc will also all benefit from this truly immersive interaction. As well as that, activities that already take place in the home, such as gaming will also advance greatly into more emotionally and sensory intensive experiences, along with much enhanced virtual tourism and virtual world tourism, virtual clubbing & pubbing, which barely even exist yet but could become major activities in the future.

Socially inclusive self-driving cars

Some people have very little social interaction because they can’t drive and don’t live close to public transport stops. In some rural areas, buses may only pass a stop once a week. Our primitive 20th century public transport systems thus unforgivably exclude a great many people from social inclusion, even though the technology needed to solve that has existed for many years.  Leftist value systems that much prefer people who live in towns or close to frequent public transport over everyone else must take a lot of the blame for the current epidemic of loneliness. It is unreasonable to expect those value systems to be replaced by more humane and equitable ones any time soon, but thankfully self-driving cars will bypass politicians and bureaucrats and provide transport for everyone. The ‘little old lady’ who can’t walk half a mile to wait 20 minutes in freezing rain for an uncomfortable bus can instead just ask her AI to order a car and it will pick her up at her front door and take her to exactly where she wants to go, then do the same for her return home whenever she wants. Once private sector firms like Uber provide cheap self-driving cars, they will be quickly followed by other companies, and later by public transport providers. Redundant buses may finally become extinct, replaced by better socially inclusive transport, large fleets of self-driving or driverless vehicles. People will be able to live anywhere and still be involved in society. As attendance at social events improves, so they will become feasible even in small communities, so there will be less need to go into a town to find one. Even political involvement might increase. Loneliness will decline as social involvement increases, and we’ll see many other social problems decline too.

Distribution drones

We hear a lot about upcoming redundancy caused by AI, but far less about the upside. AI might mean someone is no longer needed in an office, but it also makes it easier to set up a company and run it, taking what used to be just a hobby and making it into a small business. Much of the everyday admin and logistics can be automated Many who would never describe themselves as entrepreneurs might soon be making things and selling them from home and this AI-enabled home commerce will bring in the craft society. One of the big problems is getting a product to the customer. Postal services and couriers are usually expensive and very likely to lose or damage items. Protecting objects from such damage may require much time and expense packing it. Even if objects are delivered, there may be potential fraud with no-payers. Instead of this antiquated inefficient and expensive system, drone delivery could collect an object and take it to a local customer with minimal hassle and expense. Block-chain enables smart contracts that can be created and managed by AI and can directly link delivery to payment, with fully verified interaction video if necessary. If one happens, the other happens. A customer might return a damaged object, but at least can’t keep it and deny receipt. Longer distance delivery can still use cheap drone pickup to take packages to local logistics centers in smart crates with fully block-chained g-force and location detectors that can prove exactly who damaged it and where. Drones could be of any size, and of course self-driving cars or pods can easily fill the role too if smaller autonomous drones are inappropriate.

Better 3D printing technology will help to accelerate the craft economy, making it easier to do crafts by upskilling people and filling in some of their skill gaps. Someone with visual creativity but low manual skill might benefit greatly from AI model creation and 3D printer manufacture, followed by further AI assistance in marketing, selling and distribution. 3D printing might also reduce the need to go to town to buy some things.

Less shopping in high street

This is already obvious. Online shopping will continue to become a more personalized and satisfying experience, smarter, with faster delivery and easier returns, while high street decline accelerates. Every new wave of technology makes online better, and high street stores seem unable or unwilling to compete, in spite of my wonderful ‘6s guide’:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/the-future-of-high-street-survival-the-6s-guide/

Those that are more agile still suffer decline of shopper numbers as the big stores fail to attract them so even smart stores will find it harder to survive.

Improving agriculture

Farming technology has doubled the amount of food production per hectare in the last few decades. That may happen again by mid-century. Meanwhile, the trend is towards higher vegetable and lower meat consumption. Even with an increased population, less land will be needed to grow our food. As well as reducing the need to protect green belts, that will also allow some of our countryside to be put under better environmental stewardship programs, returning much of it to managed nature. What countryside we have will be healthier and prettier, and people will be drawn to it more.

Improving social engineering

Some objections to green-field building can be reduced by making better use of available land. Large numbers of new homes are needed and they will certainly need some green field to be used, but given the factors already listed above, a larger number of smaller communities might be better approach. Amazingly, in spite of decades of dating technology proving that people can be matched up easily using AI, there is still no obvious use of similar technology to establish new communities by blending together people who are likely to form effective communities. Surely it must be feasible to advertise a new community building program that wants certain kinds of people in it – even an Australian style points system might work sometimes. Unless sociologists have done nothing for the past decades, they must surely know what types of people work well together by now? If the right people live close to each other, social involvement will be high, loneliness low, health improved, care costs minimized, the need for longer distance travel reduced and environmental impact minimized. How hard can it be?

Improving building technology such as 3D printing and robotics will allow more rapid construction, so that when people are ready and willing to move, property suited to them can be available soon.

Lifestyle changes also mean that homes don’t need to be as big. A phone today does what used to need half a living room of technology and space. With wall-hung displays and augmented reality, decor can be partly virtual, and even a 450 sq ft apartment is fine as a starter place, half as big as was needed a few decades ago, and that could be 3D printed and kitted out in a few days.

Even demographic changes favor smaller communities. As wealth increases, people have smaller families, i.e fewer kids. That means fewer years doing the school run, so less travel, less need to be in a town. Smaller schools in smaller communities can still access specialist lessons via the net.

Increasing wealth also encourages and enables people to a higher quality of life. People who used to live in a crowded city street might prefer a more peaceful and spacious existence in a more rural setting and will increasingly be able to afford to move. Short term millennial frustrations with property prices won’t last, as typical 2.5% annual growth more than doubles wealth by 2050 (though automation and its assorted consequences will impact on the distribution of that wealth).

Off-grid technology

Whereas one of the main reasons to live in urban areas was easy access to telecomms, energy and water supply and sewerage infrastructure, all of these can now be achieved off-grid. Mobile networks provide even broadband access to networks. Solar or wind provide easy energy supply. Water can be harvested out of the air even in arid areas (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-5840997/The-solar-powered-humidity-harvester-suck-drinkable-water-AIR.html) and human and pet waste can be used as biomass for energy supply too, leaving fertilizer as residue.

There are also huge reasons that people won’t want to live in cities, and they will also cause deurbansisation.

The biggest by far in the problem of epidemics. As antibiotic resistance increases, disease will be a bigger problem. We may find good antibiotics alternatives but we may not. If not, then we may see some large cities where disease runs rampant and kills hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps even millions. Many scientists have listed pandemics among their top ten threats facing humanity. Obviously, being in a large city will incur a higher risk of becoming a victim, so once one or two incidents have occurred, many people will look for options to leave cities everywhere. Linked to this is bioterrorism, where the disease is deliberate, perhaps created in a garden shed by someone who learned the craft in one of today’s bio-hacking clubs. Disease might be aimed at a particular race, gender or lifestyle group or it may simply be designed to be as contagious and lethal as possible to everyone.

I’m still not saying we won’t have lots of people living in cities. I am saying that more people will feel less need to live in cities and will instead be able to find a small community where they can be happier in the countryside. Consequently, many will move out of cities, back to more rural living in smaller, friendlier communities that improving technology makes even more effective.

Urbanization will slow down, and may well go into reverse. We may reach peak city soon.

 

 

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Instant buildings: Kinetic architecture

Revisiting an idea I raised in a blog in July last year. Even I think it was badly written so it’s worth a second shot.

Construction techniques are diverse and will get diverser. Just as we’re getting used to seeing robotic bricklaying and 3D printed walls, another technique is coming over the horizon that will build so fast I call it kinetic architecture. The structure will be built so quickly it can build a bridge from one side just by building upwards at an angle, and the structure will span the gap and meet the ground at the other side before gravity has a chance to collapse it.

The key to such architecture is electromagnetic propulsion, the same as on the Japanese bullet trains or the Hyperloop, using magnetic forces caused by electric currents to propel the next piece along the existing structure to the front end where it acts as part of the path for the next. Adding pieces quickly enough leads to structures that can follow elegant paths, as if the structure is a permanent trace of the path an object would have followed if it were catapulted into the air and falling due to gravity. It could be used for buildings, bridges, or simply art.

It will become possible thanks to new materials such as graphene and other carbon composites using nanotubes. Graphene combines extreme strength, hence lightness for a particular strength requirement, with extreme conductivity, allowing it to carry very high electric currents, and therefore able to generate high magnetic forces. It is a perfect material for kinetic architecture. Pieces would have graphene electromagnet circuitry printed on their surface. Suitable circuit design would mean that every extra piece falling into place becomes an extension to the magnetic railway transporting the next piece. Just as railroads may be laid out just in front of the train using pieces carried by the train, so pieces shot into the air provide a self-building path for other pieces to follow. A building skeleton could be erected in seconds. I mentioned in my original blog (about carbethium) that this could be used to create the sort of light bridges we see in Halo. A kinetic architecture skeleton would be shot across the divide and the filler pieces in between quickly transported into place along the skeleton and assembled.

See https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2016/07/25/carbethium-a-better-than-scifi-material/. The electronic circuitry potential for graphene also allows for generating plasma or simply powering LEDs to give a nice glow just like the light bridges too.

Apart from clever circuit design, kinetic architecture also requires pieces that can interlock. The kinetic energy of the new piece arriving at the front edge would ideally be sufficient to rotate it into place, interlocking with previous front edge. 3d interlocking is tricky but additional circuitry can provide additional magnetic forces to rotate and translate pieces if kinetic energy alone isn’t enough. The key is that once interlocked, the top surface has to form a smooth continuous line with the previous one, so that pieces can move along smoothly. Hooks can catch an upcoming piece to make it rotate, with the hooks merging nicely with part of the new piece as it falls into place, making those hooks part of a now smooth surface and a new hook at the new front end. You’ll have to imagine it yourself, I can’t draw it. Obviously, pieces would need precision engineering because they’d need to fit precisely to give the required strength and fit.

Ideally, with sufficiently well-designed pieces, it should be possible to dismantle the structure by reversing the build process, unlocking each end piece in turn and transporting it back to base along the structure until no structure remains.

I can imagine such techniques being used at first for artistic creations, sculptures using beautiful parabolic arcs. But they could also be used for rapid assembly for emergency buildings, instant evacuation routes for tall buildings, or to make temporary bridges after an earthquake destroyed a permanent one. When a replacement has been made, the temporary one could be rolled back up and used elsewhere. Maybe it could become routine for making temporary structures that are needed quickly such as for pop concerts and festivals. One day it could become an everyday building technique. 

Mega-buildings could become cultural bubbles

My regular readers, both of them in fact, will know I am often concerned about the dangerous growth of social media bubbles. By mid-century, thanks to upcoming materials, some cities will have a few buildings over 1km tall, possibly 10km (and a spaceport or two up to 30km high). These would be major buildings, and could create a similar problem.

A 1km building could have 200 floors, and with 100m square floors, 200 hectares of space.  Assuming half is residential space and the other half is shops, offices or services, that equates to 20,000 luxury apartments (90 sq m each) or 40,000 basic flats. That means each such building could be equivalent to a small town, with maybe 50,000 inhabitants. A 10km high mega-building, with a larger 250m side, would have 60 times more space, housing up to 300,000 people and all they need day-to-day, essentially a city.

Construction could be interesting. My thoughts are that a 10km building could be extruded from the ground using high pressure 3D printing, rather than assembled with cranes. Each floor could be fully fitted out while it is still near ground level, its apartments sold and populated, even as the building grows upward. That keeps construction costs and cash flow manageable.

My concern is that although we will have the technology to build such buildings in the 2040s, I’m not aware of much discussion about how cultures would evolve in such places, at least not outside of sci-fi (like Judge Dredd or Blade Runner). I rather hope we wouldn’t just build them first and try to solve social problems later. We really ought to have some sort of plans to make them work.

In a 100m side building, entire floors or groups of floors would likely be allocated to particular functions – residential, shopping, restaurants, businesses etc. Grouping functions sensibly reduces the total travel needed. In larger buildings, it is easier to have local shops mixed with apartments for everyday essentials, with larger malls elsewhere.

People could live almost entirely in the building, rarely needing to leave, and many might well do just that, essentially becoming institutionalized. I think these buildings will feel very different from small towns. In small towns, people still travel a lot to other places, and a feeling of geographic isolation doesn’t emerge. In a huge tower block of similar population and facilities, I don’t think people would leave as often, and many will stay inside. All they need is close by and might soon feel safe and familiar, while the external world might seem more distant, scarier. Institutionalization might not take long, a month or two of becoming used to the convenience of staying nearby while watching news of horrors going on elsewhere. Once people stop the habit of leaving the building, it could become easier to find reasons not to leave it in future.

Power structures would soon evolve – local politics would happen, criminal gangs would emerge, people would soon learn of good and bad zones. It’s possible that people might become tribal, their building and their tribe competing for external resources and funding with tribes in other mega-buildings, and their might be conflict. Knowing they are physically detached, the same bravery to attack total strangers just because they hold different views might emerge that we see on social media today. There might be cyber-wars, drone wars, IoT wars between buildings.

I’m not claiming to be a social anthropologist. I have no real idea how these buildings will work and perhaps my fears are unjustified. But even I can see some potential problems just based on what we see today, magnified for the same reasons problems get magnified on social media. Feelings of safety and anonymity can lead to some very nasty tribal behaviors. Managing diversity of opinion among people moving in would be a significant challenge, maintaining it might be near impossible. With the sort of rapid polarization we’ve already seen today thanks to social media bubbles, physically contained communities would surely see those same forces magnified everyday.

Building a 10km mega-building will become feasible in the 2040s, and increased urban populations will make them an attractive option for planners. Managing them and making them work socially might be a much bigger challenge.

 

 

Hull in 2050

I wrote a piece for KCOM on what we can expect to feature in the city by 2050.

KCOM illustration

Highlights and KCOM commentary at: https://www.kcomhome.com/news/articles/welcome-to-the-hull-of-the-future/

If you want my full article, they have allowed me to share it. Here is a pdf of my original article, but it’s just text – I can’t do nice graphics:

 

Hull 2050

They also have a great project called We Made Ourselves Over, set in 2097. Here’s one of their graphics from that:

Graphic from http://wemadeourselvesover.com/

High-rise external evacuation

A quick googling turned up this great idea, using an escape chute attached to the top of a fire crane. The chute has a fireproof external layer and people slow or speed their descent in it simply by varying their posture. Read the pdf for more details:

http://www.escapeconsult.biz/download.php?module=prod&id=26

But the picture tells all you need to know. You can see it reaches very high, up to 100m with the tallest fire appliance.

It is a great idea, but you can still see how it could be improved, and the manufacturer may well already have better versions on the way.

Firstly, the truck is already leaning, even though it has extendable feet to increase the effective base area. This affects all free-standing fire rescue cranes and ladders (suspension ladders, or ladders able to lean against a wall obviously include other forces). Physics dictates that the center of gravity, with the evacuees included, must remain above the base or it will start to topple. The higher it reaches and the further from the truck, the harder that becomes, and the fewer people can simultaneously use the escape chute. Clearly if it is go even higher, we need to find new ways of keeping the base and center of gravity aligned, or to prevent it toppling by leaning the ladder securely against a sound piece of wall that isn’t above a fire.

One solution is obvious. Usually with a high-rise fire, a number of fire appliances would be there. By linking several appliances to the ladder in a stable pattern, the base area then becomes far larger, the entire area enclosed by the combined appliances. At the very least, they can spread out across a street, and sometimes as in the Grenfell Tower fire, there is a lot of nearby space to spread over. With a number of fire appliances, the crane is also not limited to the carrying capacity of a single appliance.

If theses are specialist hi-rise appliances, one or two would carry telescopic arms to support the rescue equipment, with one or more trucks using tension wires to increase the base area.

We also need to speed up entry to the chute and preferably make it accessible to more windows. The existing system has access via a small hole that might be slow to pass through, and challenging for larger people or those with less mobility. A funneled design would allow people to jump in from several windows or even drop from a floor above. Designing the access to prevent simultaneous arrivals at the chute is easy enough, even if several people jump in together

Also, it would be good if the chute could take evacuees away from the building and flames as fast as possible. Getting them to the ground is a lesser priority. Designing the funnel so it crosses several windows, with a steep slope away from the building (like an airplane escape slide) before it enters the downward chute would do that.

Another enhancement would be that instead of a broad funnel and single chute, a number of chutes could be suspended, with one for each window. Several people would be able to descend down different chutes at the same time. with a much broader base area, toppling risk would still be greatly reduced.

If a few support arms could be extended from the crane towards the building, that would provide extra stability until their strength (or building fabric) is compromised by fire. Further support might sometimes be available from window cleaning platform apparatus that could support the weight of the rescue chutes. If emergency escape chutes are built into the platforms could even make for an instant escape system before fire services arrive.

With these relatively straightforward enhancements, this evacuation system would be even better and would allow many people to escape who otherwise wouldn’t. OK, here’s a badly drawn pic:

Future Augmented Reality

AR has been hot on the list of future IT tech for 25 years. It has been used for various things since smartphones and tablets appeared but really hit the big time with the recent Pokemon craze.

To get an idea of the full potential of augmented reality, recognize that the web and all its impacts on modern life came from the convergence of two medium sized industries – telecoms and computing. Augmented reality will involve the convergence of everything in the real world with everything in the virtual world, including games, media, the web, art, data, visualization, architecture, fashion and even imagination. That convergence will be enabled by ubiquitous mobile broadband, cloud, blockchain payments, IoT, positioning and sensor tech, image recognition, fast graphics chips, display and visor technology and voice and gesture recognition plus many other technologies.

Just as you can put a Pokemon on a lawn, so you could watch aliens flying around in spaceships or cartoon characters or your favorite celebs walking along the street among the other pedestrians. You could just as easily overlay alternative faces onto the strangers passing by.

People will often want to display an avatar to people looking at them, and that could be different for every viewer. That desire competes with the desire of the viewer to decide how to see other people, so there will be some battles over who controls what is seen. Feminists will certainly want to protect women from the obvious objectification that would follow if a woman can’t control how she is seen. In some cases, such objectification and abuse could even reach into hate crime territory, with racist, sexist or homophobic virtual overlays. All this demands control, but it is far from obvious where that control would come from.

As for buildings, they too can have a virtual appearance. Virtual architecture will show off architect visualization skills, but will also be hijacked by the marketing departments of the building residents. In fact, many stakeholders will want to control what you see when you look at a building. The architects, occupants, city authorities, government, mapping agencies, advertisers, software producers and games designers will all try to push appearances at the viewer, but the viewer might want instead to choose to impose one from their own offerings, created in real time by AI or from large existing libraries of online imagery, games or media. No two people walking together on a street would see the same thing.

Interior decor is even more attractive as an AR application. Someone living in a horrible tiny flat could enhance it using AR to give the feeling of far more space and far prettier decor and even local environment. Virtual windows onto Caribbean beaches may be more attractive than looking at mouldy walls and the office block wall that are physically there. Reality is often expensive but images can be free.

Even fashion offers a platform for AR enhancement. An outfit might look great on a celebrity but real life shapes might not measure up. Makeovers take time and money too. In augmented reality, every garment can look as it should, and that makeup can too. The hardest choice will be to choose a large number of virtual outfits and makeups to go with the smaller range of actual physical appearances available from that wardrobe.

Gaming is in pole position, because 3D world design, imagination, visualization and real time rendering technology are all games technology, so perhaps the biggest surprise in the Pokemon success is that it was the first to really grab attention. People could by now be virtually shooting aliens or zombies hoarding up escalators as they wait for their partners. They are a little late, but such widespread use of personal or social gaming on city streets and in malls will come soon.

AR Visors are on their way too, and though the first offerings will be too expensive to achieve widespread adoption, cheaper ones will quickly follow. The internet of things and sensor technology will create abundant ground-up data to make a strong platform. As visors fall in price, so too will the size and power requirements of the processing needed, though much can be cloud-based.

It is a fairly safe bet that marketers will try very hard to force images at us and if they can’t do that via blatant in-your-face advertising, then product placement will become a very fine art. We should expect strong alliances between the big marketing and advertising companies and top games creators.

As AI simultaneously develops, people will be able to generate a lot of their own overlays, explaining to AI what they’d like and having it produced for them in real time. That would undermine marketing use of AR so again there will be some battles for control. Just as we have already seen owners of landmarks try to trademark the image of their buildings to prevent people including them in photographs, so similar battles will fill the courts over AR. What is to stop someone superimposing the image of a nicer building on their own? Should they need to pay a license to do so? What about overlaying celebrity faces on strangers? What about adding multimedia overlays from the web to make dull and ordinary products do exciting things when you use them? A cocktail served in a bar could have a miniature Sydney fireworks display going on over it. That might make it more exciting, but should the media creator be paid and how should that be policed? We’ll need some sort of AR YouTube at the very least with added geolocation.

The whole arts and media industry will see city streets as galleries and stages on which to show off and sell their creations.

Public services will make more mundane use of AR. Simple everyday context-dependent signage is one application, but overlays would be valuable in emergencies too. If police or fire services could superimpose warning on everyone’s visors nearby, that may help save lives in emergencies. Health services will use AR to assist ordinary people to care for a patient until an ambulance arrives

Shopping provide more uses and more battles. AR will show you what a competing shop has on offer right beside the one in front of you. That will make it easy to digitally trespass on a competitor’s shop floor. People can already do that on their smartphone, but AR will put the full image large as life right in front of your eyes to make it very easy to compare two things. Shops won’t want to block comms completely because that would prevent people wanting to enter their shop at all, so they will either have to compete harder or find more elaborate ways of preventing people making direct visual comparisons in-store. Perhaps digital trespassing might become a legal issue.

There will inevitably be a lot of social media use of AR too. If people get together to demonstrate, it will be easier to coordinate them. If police insist they disperse, they could still congregate virtually. Dispersed flash mobs could be coordinated as much as ones in the same location. That makes AR a useful tool for grass-roots democracy, especially demonstrations and direct action, but it also provides a platform for negative uses such as terrorism. Social entrepreneurs will produce vast numbers of custom overlays for millions of different purposes and contexts. Today we have tens of millions of websites and apps. Tomorrow we will have even more AR overlays.

These are just a few of the near term uses of augmented reality and a few hints as issues arising. It will change every aspect of our lives in due course, just as the web has, but more so.

 

Carbethium, a better-than-scifi material

How to build one of these for real:

Light_bridge

Halo light bridge, from halo.wikia.com

Or indeed one of these:

From halo.wikia.com

From halo.wikia.com

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

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

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

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/will-plasma-be-the-new-glass/

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

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/06/23/free-floating-ai-battle-drone-orbs-or-making-glyph-from-mass-effect/

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/11/25/how-to-make-a-star-wars-light-saber/

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

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

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

But in the words of Professor Emmett Brown, “well, I figured, what the hell?”. 2050 values are not 2016 values. Our value set is already on a random walk, disconnected from any anchor, its future direction indicated by a combination of current momentum and a chaos engine linking to random utterances of arbitrary celebrities on social media. 2050 morality on many issues will be the inverse of today’s, just as today’s is on many issues the inverse of the 1970s’. Whatever you do or however politically correct you might think you are today, you will be an outcast before you get old: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/05/22/morality-inversion-you-will-be-an-outcast-before-youre-old/

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

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

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

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/11/12/how-to-make-a-spiderman-style-graphene-silk-thrower-for-emergency-services/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2045: Constructing the future

CarsHiRes_02

Today is the day Marty Mc’Fly time traveled 30 years forwards to in ‘Back to the Future 2’. In recognition of that, equipment rental firm Hewden commissioned me to produce a report on what the world will look like in 2045, 30 years on from now. It considers construction technology as well as general changes in cities and buildings. The report is called 2045: Constructing the future and you can get a full copy from http://www.constructingthefuture.com. Here are a few of the highlights:

Report Highlights

High use of super-strong carbon-based materials, including ultra-high buildings such as spaceports up to 30km tall. Superlight materials will even enable decorative floating structures.

LondonSkyline

Greatly increased safety thanks to AI, robotics and total monitoring via drones

Half human, half machine workers will be common as exoskeletons allow workers to wear sophisticated hydraulic equipment.

ConstructionWorkerHiRes_02

Upskilled construction workers will enjoy better safety, better job satisfaction and better pay.

Augmented reality will be useful in construction and to allow cheap buildings to have elaborate appearance.

Smart makes buildings cheap – with tiny sensors, augmented reality, energy harvesting coatings, less wiring and no windows, buildings can become very cheap at the same time as becoming better.

A potential architectural nightmare

I read in the papers that Google’s boss has rejected ‘boring’ plans for their London HQ. Hooray! Larry Page says he wants something that will be worthy of standing 100 years. I don’t always agree with Google but I certainly approve on this occasion. Given their normal style choices for other buildings, I have every confidence that their new building will be gorgeous, but what if I’m wrong?

In spite of the best efforts of Prince Charles, London has become a truly 21st century city. The new tall buildings are gorgeous and awe-inspiring as they should be. Whether they will be here in 100 years I don’t much care, but they certainly show off what can be done today, rather than poorly mimicking what could be done in the 16th century.

I’ve always loved modern architecture since I was a child (I like some older styles too, especially Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona). Stainless steel and glass are simple materials but used well, they can make beautiful structures. Since the Lloyds building opened up the new era, many impressive buildings have appeared. Modern materials have very well-known physical properties and high manufacturing consistency, so can be used at their full engineering potential.

Materials technology is developing quickly and won’t slow down any time soon. Recently discovered materials such as graphene will dramatically improve what can be done. Reliable electronics will too. If you could be certain that a device will always perform properly even when there is a local power cut, and is immune to hacking, then ultra-fast electromagnetic lifts could result. You could be accelerated downwards at 2.5g and the lift could rotate and slow you down at 0.5g in the slowing phase, then you would feel a constant weight all the way down but would reach high speed on a long descent. Cables just wouldn’t be able to do such a thing when we get building that are many kilometers high.

Google could only build with materials that exist now or could be reliable enough for building use by construction time. They can’t use graphene tension members or plasma windows or things that won’t even be invented for decades. Whatever they do, the materials and techniques will not remain state of the art for long. That means there is even more importance in making something that looks impressive. Technology dates quickly, style lasts much longer. So for possibly the first time ever, I’d recommend going for impressive style over substance.

There is an alternative; to go for a design that is adaptable, that can change as technology permits. That is not without penalty though, because making something that has to be adaptive restricts the design options.

I discussed plasma glass in: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/will-plasma-be-the-new-glass/

I don’t really know if it will be feasible, but it might be.

Carbon foam could be made less dense than air, or even helium for that matter, so could make buildings with sections that float (a bit like the city in the game Bioshock Infinite).

Dynamic magnetic levitation could allow features that hover or move about. Again, this would need ultra-reliable electronics or else things would be falling on people. Lightweight graphene or carbon nanotube composite panels would provide both structural strength and the means to conduct the electricity to make the magnetic fields.

Light emission will remain an important feature. We already see some superb uses of lighting, but as the technology to produce light continues to improve, we will see ever more interesting and powerful effects. LEDs and lasers dominate today, and holograms are starting to develop again, but none of these existed until half a century ago. Even futurologists can only talk about things that exist at least in concept already, but many of the things that will dominate architecture in 50-100 years have probably not even been thought of yet. Obviously, I can’t list them. However, with a base level assumption that we will have at the very least free-floating panels and holograms floating around the building, and very likely various plasma constructions too, the far future building will be potentially very visually stimulating.

It will therefore be hard for Google to make a building today that would hold its own against what we can build in 50 or 100 years. Hard, but not impossible. Some of the most impressive structures in the world were built hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

A lighter form of adaptability is to use augmented reality. Buildings could have avatars just as people can. This is where the Google dream building could potentially become an architectural nightmare if they make another glass-style error.

A building might emit a 3D digital aura designed by its owners, or the user might have one superimposed by a third-party digital architecture service, based on their own architectural preferences, or digital architectural overlays could be hijacked by marketers or state services as just another platform to advertise. Clearly, this form of adaptation cannot easily be guaranteed to stay in the control of the building owners.

On the other hand, this one is for Google. Google and advertising are well acquainted. Maybe they could use their entire building surface as a huge personalised augmented reality advertising banner. They will know by image search who all the passers-by are, will know all aspects of their lives, and can customize ads to their desires as they walk past.

So the nightmare for the new Google building is not that the building will be boring, but that it is invisible, replaced by a personalized building-sized advertisement.

 

Laser spirit level with marked line

Another day, another idea. It probably already exists but I couldn’t find one. If it isn’t already patented, feel free to develop it.

Spirit level