Category Archives: biotech

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 holes

H already in my alphabetic series! I was going to write about happiness, or have/have nots, or hunger, or harassment, or hiding, or health. Far too many options for H. Holes is a topic I have never written about, not even a bit, whereas the others would just be updates on previous thoughts. So here goes, the future of holes.

Holes come in various shapes and sizes. At one extreme, we have great big holes from deep mining, drilling, fracking, and natural holes such as meteor craters, rifts and volcanoes. Some look nice and make good documentaries, but I have nothing to say about them.

At the other we have long thin holes in optical fibers that increase bandwidth or holes through carbon nanotubes to make them into electron pipes. And short fat ones that make nice passages through semi-permeable smart membranes.

Electron pipes are an idea I invented in 1992 to increase internet capacity by several orders of magnitude. I’ve written about them in this blog before: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/05/04/increasing-internet-capacity-electron-pipes/

Short fat holes are interesting. If you make a fabric using special polymers that can stretch when a voltage is applied across it, then round holes in it would become oval holes as long as you only stretch it in one direction.  Particles that may fit through round holes might be too thick to pass through them when they are elongated. If you can do that with a membrane on the skin surface, then you have an electronically controllable means of allowing the right mount of medication to be applied. A dispenser could hold medication and use the membrane to allow the right doses at the right time to be applied.

Long thin holes are interesting too. Hollow fiber polyester has served well as duvet and pillow filling for many years. Suppose more natural material fibers could be engineered to have holes, and those holes could be filled with chemicals that are highly distasteful to moths. As a moth larva starts to eat the fabric, it would very quickly be repelled, protecting the fabric from harm.

Conventional wisdom says when you are in a hole, stop digging. End.

The future of feminism and fashion

Perhaps it’s a bit presumptive of me to talk about what feminists want or don’t want, but I will make the simplifying assumption that they vary somewhat and don’t all want the same things. When it comes to makeup, many feminists want to look how they want to look for their own pleasure, not specifically to appeal to men, or they may want to attract some people and not others, or they may not want to bother with makeup at all, but still be able to look nice for the right people.

Augmented reality will allow those options. AR creates an extra layer of appearance that allows a woman to present herself any way she wants via an avatar, and also to vary presented appearance according to who is looking at her. So she may choose to be attractive to people she finds attractive, and plain to people she’d rather not get attention from. This is independent of any makeup she might be wearing, so she may choose not to wear any at all and rely entirely on the augmented reality layer to replace makeup, saving a lot of time, effort and expense. She could even use skin care products such as face masks that are purely functional, nourishing or protecting her face, but which don’t look very nice. Friends, colleagues and particular subsections of total strangers would still see her as she wants to be seen and she might not care about how she appears to others.

It may therefore be possible that feminism could use makeup as a future activist platform. It would allow women to seize back control over their appearance in a far more precise way, making it abundantly clear that their appearance belongs to them and is under their control and that they control who they look nice for. They would not have to give up looking good for themselves or their friends, but would be able to exclude any groups currently out of favour.

However, it doesn’t have to be just virtual appearance that they can control electronically. It is also possible to have actual physical makeup that changes according to time, location, emotional state or circumstances. Active makeup does just that, but I’ve written too often about that. Let’s look instead at other options:

Fashion has created many different clothing accessories over the years. It has taken far longer than it should, but we are now finally seeing flexible polymer displays being forged into wrist watch straps and health monitoring bands as well as bendy and curvy phones. As 1920s era fashion makes a small comeback, it can’t be long before headbands and hair-bands come back and they would be a perfect display platform too. Hair accessories can be pretty much any shape and size, and be a single display zone or multiple ones. Some could even use holographic displays, so that the accessory seems to change its form, or have optional remote components seemingly hanging free in the nearby air. Any of these could be electronically controllable or set to adjust automatically according to location and the people present.

Displays would also make good forehead jewellery, such as electronic eyebrows, holographic jewels, smart bindis, forehead tattoos and so on. They could change colour or pattern according to emotions for example. As long as displays are small, skin flexing doesn’t present too big an engineering barrier.

In fact, small display particles such as electronic glitter could group together to appear as a single display, even though each is attached to a different piece of skin. Thus, flexing of the skin is still possible with a collection of rigid small displays, which could be millimetre sized electronic glitter. Electronic glitter could contain small capacitors that store energy harvested from temperature difference between the skin and the environment, periodically allowing a colour change.

However, it won’t be just the forehead that is available once displays become totally flexible. That will make the whole visible face an electronic display platform instead of just a place for dumb makeup. Smart freckles and moles could make a fashion reappearance. Lips and cheeks could change colour according to mood and pre-decided protocols, rather than just at the whim of nature.

Other parts of the body would likely house displays too. Fingernails and toenails could be an early candidate since they are relatively rigid. The wrist and forearm are also often exposed. Much of the rest of the body is concealed by clothing most of the time, but seasonal displays are likely when it is more often bare. Beach displays could interact with swimwear, or even substitute for it.

In fact, enabling a multitude of tiny displays on the face and around the body will undoubtedly create a new fashion design language. Some dialects could be secret, only understood by certain groups, a tribal language. Fashion has always had an extensive symbology and adding electronic components to the various items will extend its potential range. It is impossible to predict what different things will mean to mainstream and sub-cultures, as meanings evolve chaotically from random beginnings. But there will certainly be many people and groups willing to capitalise on the opportunities presented. Feminism could use such devices and languages to good effect.

Clothing and accessories such as jewellery are also obvious potential display platforms. A good clue for the preferred location is the preferred location today for similar usage. For example, many people wear logos, messages and pictures on their T-shirts, whereas other items of clothing remain mostly free of them. The T-shirt is therefore by far the most likely electronic display area. Belts, boots, shoes and bag-straps offer a likely platform too, not because they are used so much today, but because they again present an easy and relatively rigid physical platform.

Timescales for this run from historical appearance of LED jewellery at Christmas (which I am very glad to say I also predicted well in advance) right through to holographic plates that appear to hover around the person as they walk around. I’ve explained in previous blogs how actual floating and mobile plates could be made using plasma and electro-magnetics. But the timescale of relevance in the next few years is that of the cheaper and flexible polymer display. As costs fall and size increases, in parallel with an ever improving wireless and cloud infrastructure, the potential revenue from a large new sector combining the fashion and display industries will make this not so much likely as  inevitable.

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.

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.

 

The future of X-People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The future of terminators

The Terminator films were important in making people understand that AI and machine consciousness will not necessarily be a good thing. The terminator scenario has stuck in our terminology ever since.

There is absolutely no reason to assume that a super-smart machine will be hostile to us. There are even some reasons to believe it would probably want to be friends. Smarter-than-man machines could catapult us into a semi-utopian era of singularity level development to conquer disease and poverty and help us live comfortably alongside a healthier environment. Could.

But just because it doesn’t have to be bad, that doesn’t mean it can’t be. You don’t have to be bad but sometimes you are.

It is also the case that even if it means us no harm, we could just happen to be in the way when it wants to do something, and it might not care enough to protect us.

Asimov’s laws of robotics are irrelevant. Any machine smart enough to be a terminator-style threat would presumably take little notice of rules it has been given by what it may consider a highly inferior species. The ants in your back garden have rules to govern their colony and soldier ants trained to deal with invader threats to enforce territorial rules. How much do you consider them when you mow the lawn or rearrange the borders or build an extension?

These arguments are put in debates every day now.

There are however a few points that are less often discussed

Humans are not always good, indeed quite a lot of people seem to want to destroy everything most of us want to protect. Given access to super-smart machines, they could design more effective means to do so. The machines might be very benign, wanting nothing more than to help mankind as far as they possibly can, but misled into working for them, believing in architected isolation that such projects are for the benefit of humanity. (The machines might be extremely  smart, but may have existed since their inception in a rigorously constructed knowledge environment. To them, that might be the entire world, and we might be introduced as a new threat that needs to be dealt with.) So even benign AI could be an existential threat when it works for the wrong people. The smartest people can sometimes be very naive. Perhaps some smart machines could be deliberately designed to be so.

I speculated ages ago what mad scientists or mad AIs could do in terms of future WMDs:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/03/31/wmds-for-mad-ais/

Smart machines might be deliberately built for benign purposes and turn rogue later, or they may be built with potential for harm designed in, for military purposes. These might destroy only enemies, but you might be that enemy. Others might do that and enjoy the fun and turn on their friends when enemies run short. Emotions might be important in smart machines just as they are in us, but we shouldn’t assume they will be the same emotions or be wired the same way.

Smart machines may want to reproduce. I used this as the core storyline in my sci-fi book. They may have offspring and with the best intentions of their parent AIs, the new generation might decide not to do as they’re told. Again, in human terms, a highly familiar story that goes back thousands of years.

In the Terminator film, it is a military network that becomes self aware and goes rogue that is the problem. I don’t believe digital IT can become conscious, but I do believe reconfigurable analog adaptive neural networks could. The cloud is digital today, but it won’t stay that way. A lot of analog devices will become part of it. In

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/10/16/ground-up-data-is-the-next-big-data/

I argued how new self-organising approaches to data gathering might well supersede big data as the foundations of networked intelligence gathering. Much of this could be in a the analog domain and much could be neural. Neural chips are already being built.

It doesn’t have to be a military network that becomes the troublemaker. I suggested a long time ago that ‘innocent’ student pranks from somewhere like MIT could be the source. Some smart students from various departments could collaborate to see if they can hijack lots of networked kit to see if they can make a conscious machine. Their algorithms or techniques don’t have to be very efficient if they can hijack enough. There is a possibility that such an effort could succeed if the right bits are connected into the cloud and accessible via sloppy security, and the ground up data industry might well satisfy that prerequisite soon.

Self-organisation technology will make possible extremely effective combat drones.

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

Terminators also don’t have to be machines. They could be organic, products of synthetic biology. My own contribution here is smart yogurt: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/the-future-of-bacteria/

With IT and biology rapidly converging via nanotech, there will be many ways hybrids could be designed, some of which could adapt and evolve to fill different niches or to evade efforts to find or harm them. Various grey goo scenarios can be constructed that don’t have any miniature metal robots dismantling things. Obviously natural viruses or bacteria could also be genetically modified to make weapons that could kill many people – they already have been. Some could result from seemingly innocent R&D by smart machines.

I dealt a while back with the potential to make zombies too, remotely controlling people – alive or dead. Zombies are feasible this century too:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2012/02/14/zombies-are-coming/ &

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/01/25/vampires-are-yesterday-zombies-will-peak-soon-then-clouds-are-coming/

A different kind of terminator threat arises if groups of people are linked at consciousness level to produce super-intelligences. We will have direct brain links mid-century so much of the second half may be spent in a mental arms race. As I wrote in my blog about the Great Western War, some of the groups will be large and won’t like each other. The rest of us could be wiped out in the crossfire as they battle for dominance. Some people could be linked deeply into powerful machines or networks, and there are no real limits on extent or scope. Such groups could have a truly global presence in networks while remaining superficially human.

Transhumans could be a threat to normal un-enhanced humans too. While some transhumanists are very nice people, some are not, and would consider elimination of ordinary humans a price worth paying to achieve transhumanism. Transhuman doesn’t mean better human, it just means humans with greater capability. A transhuman Hitler could do a lot of harm, but then again so could ordinary everyday transhumanists that are just arrogant or selfish, which is sadly a much bigger subset.

I collated these various varieties of potential future cohabitants of our planet in: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/06/19/future-human-evolution/

So there are numerous ways that smart machines could end up as a threat and quite a lot of terminators that don’t need smart machines.

Outcomes from a terminator scenario range from local problems with a few casualties all the way to total extinction, but I think we are still too focused on the death aspect. There are worse fates. I’d rather be killed than converted while still conscious into one of 7 billion zombies and that is one of the potential outcomes too, as is enslavement by some mad scientist.