Category Archives: biotech

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.

 

The future of gardens

It’s been weeks since my last blog. I started a few but they need some more thought so as a catch-up, here is a nice frivolous topic, recycled from 1998.

Surely gardens are a place to get back to nature, to escape from technology? Well, when journalists ask to see really advanced technology, I take them to the garden. Humans still have a long way to go to catch up with what nature does all the time. A dragonfly catching smaller flies is just a hint of future warfare, and every flower is an exercise in high precision marketing, let alone engineering. But we will catch up, and even the stages between now and then will be fun.

Advanced garden technology today starts and ends with robotic lawn trimmers. I guess you could add the special materials used in garden tools, advanced battery tech, security monitoring, plant medications and nutrition. OK, there are already lots of advanced technologies in gardens, they just aren’t very glamorous. The fact is that our gardens already use a wide range of genetically enhanced plants and flowers, state of the art fertilizers and soil conditioners, fancy lawnmowers and automatic sprinkler systems. So what can we expect next?

Fiber optic plants already  add a touch of somewhat tacky enchantment to a garden and can be a good substitute for more conventional lighting. Home security uses video cameras and webcams and some rather fun documentaries have resulted from videoing pets and wild animals during the night. There will soon be many other appliances in the future garden, including the various armies of robots and micro-bots  doing a range of jobs from cutting the grass every time a blade gets more than 3 cm long, weeding, watering, pollination or carrying individual grains of fertilizer to the plants that need it. Others will fight with bugs or tidy up debris, or remove dying flowers to keep the garden looking pristine. They could even assist in propagation, burying seeds in just the right places and tending them while they become established. The garden pond may have robot ducks or fish just for fun.

Various sensors may be inserted into the ground around the garden, or smart dust just sprinkled randomly. These would warn when the ground is getting too dry and perhaps co-ordinate automatic sprinklers. They could also monitor the chemical composition, advising the gardener where to add which type of fertilizer or conditioner. In fact, when the price and size falls sufficiently, electronic sensors might well be mixed in with fertilizer and other garden care products.

With all this robot assistance, the human may design the garden and then just let the robots get on with the construction and maintenance. Or maybe just download a garden plan if they’re really lazy, or get the AI to download one.

Another obvious potential impact comes in the shape of genetic engineering. While designing the genome for custom plants is not quite as simple as assembling Lego blocks, we will nevertheless be able to pick and choose from a wide variety of characteristics available from anywhere in the plant and animal kingdom. We are promised blue roses that smell of designer perfumes, grass that only needs cut once a year and ground cover plants that actually grow faster than weeds. By messing about with genes we can thus change the appearance and characteristics of plants enormously, and while getting a company logo to appear on a flower petal might be beyond us, the garden could certainly look much more kaleidoscopic than today’s. We are already in the era where genetics has become a hobbyist activity, but so far the limits are pretty simple gene transfers to add fun things like fluorescence or light emission. Legislation will hopefully prevent people using such clubs to learn how to make viruses or bacteria for terrorist use.

In the long term we are not limited by the Lego bricks provided by nature. Nanotechnology will eventually allow us to produce inorganic ‘plants’ . You might buy a seed and drop it in the required place and it would grow into a predetermined structure just like an organic seed, taking the materials from the soil or air, or perhaps from some additives. However, there is almost no theoretical limit to the type of ‘plant’ that could be produced this way. Flowers with logos are possible, but so are video displays built into the flowers, so are garden gnomes that wander around or that actually fish in the pond. A wide range of static and dynamic ornamentation could add fun to every garden. Nanotechnology has so many possibilities, there are almost no ultimate limits to what can be done apart from the fundamental physics of materials. Power supplies for these devices could use solar, wind or thermal power.

On the patio, there is more scope for video displays in the paving and walls, to add color or atmosphere, and also to provide a recharging base for the robots without their own independent power supplies. Flat speakers could also be built into the walls, providing birdsong or other natural sounds that are otherwise declining in our gardens. Appropriately placed large display panels could simulate being on a beach while sunbathing in Nottingham (for non-Brits, Nottingham is a city not renowned for its sunshine, and very far from a beach).

All in all, the garden could become a place of relaxation, getting back to what we like best in nature, without all the boring bits looking after it in our few spare hours. Even before we retire, we will be able to enjoy the garden, instead of just weeding and cutting the grass.

1998 is a long time ago and I have lots of new ideas for the garden now, but time demands I leave them for a later blog.

The future of death

This one is a cut and paste from my book You Tomorrow.

Although age-related decline can be postponed significantly, it will eventually come. But that is just biological decline. In a few decades, people will have their brains linked to the machine world and much of their mind will be online, and that opens up the strong likelihood that death is not inevitable, and in fact anyone who expects to live past 2070 biologically (and rich people who can get past 2050) shouldn’t need to face death of their mind. Their bodies will eventually die, but their minds can live on, and an android body will replace the biological one they’ve lost.

Death used to be one of the great certainties of life, along with taxes. But unless someone under 35 now is unfortunate enough to die early from accident or disease, they have a good chance of not dying at all. Let’s explore that.

Genetics and other biotechnology will work with advanced materials technology and nanotechnology to limit and even undo damage caused by disease and age, keeping us young for longer, eventually perhaps forever. It remains to be seen how far we get with that vision in the next century, but we can certainly expect some progress in that area. We won’t get biological immortality for a good while, but if you can move into a high quality android body, who cares?

With this combination of technologies locked together with IT in a positive feedback loop, we will certainly eventually develop the technology to enable a direct link between the human brain and the machine, i.e. the descendants of today’s computers. On the computer side, neural networks are already the routine approach to many problems and are based on many of the same principles that neurons in the brain use. As this field develops, we will be able to make a good emulation of biological neurons. As it develops further, it ought to be possible on a sufficiently sophisticated computer to make a full emulation of a whole brain. Progress is already happening in this direction.

Meanwhile, on the human side, nanotechnology and biotechnology will also converge so that we will have the capability to link synthetic technology directly to individual neurons in the brain. We don’t know for certain that this is possible, but it may be possible to measure the behaviour of each individual neuron using this technology and to signal this behaviour to the brain emulation running in the computer, which could then emulate it. Other sensors could similarly measure and allow emulation of the many chemical signalling mechanisms that are used in the brain. The computer could thus produce an almost perfect electronic equivalent of the person’s brain, neuron by neuron. This gives us two things.

Firstly, by doing this, we would have a ‘backup’ copy of the person’s brain, so that in principle, they can carry on thinking, and effectively living, long after their biological body and brain has died. At this point we could claim effective immortality. Secondly, we have a two way link between the brain and the computer which allows thought to be executed on either platform and to be signalled between them.

There is an important difference between the brain and computer already that we may be able to capitalise on. In the brain’s neurons, signals travel at hundreds of metres per second. In a free space optical connection, they travel at hundreds of millions of metres per second, millions of times faster. Switching speeds are similarly faster in electronics. In the brain, cells are also very large compared to the electronic components of the future, so we may be able to reduce the distances over which the signals have to travel by another factor of 100 or more. But this assumes we take an almost exact representation of brain layout. We might be able to do much better than this. In the brain, we don’t appear to use all the neurons, (some are either redundant or have an unknown purpose) and those that we do use in a particular process are often in groups that are far apart. Reconfigurable hardware will be the norm in the 21st century and we may be able to optimize the structure for each type of thought process. Rearranging the useful neurons into more optimal structures should give another huge gain.

This means that our electronic emulation of the brain should behave in a similar way but much faster – maybe billions of times faster! It may be able to process an entire lifetime’s thoughts in a second or two. But even there are several opportunities for vast improvement. The brain is limited in size by a variety of biological constraints. Even if there were more space available, it could not be made much more efficient by making it larger, because of the need for cooling, energy and oxygen supply taking up ever more space and making distances between processors larger. In the computer, these constraints are much more easily addressable, so we could add large numbers of additional neurons to give more intelligence. In the brain, many learning processes stop soon after birth or in childhood. There need be no such constraints in computer emulations, so we could learn new skills as easily as in our infancy. And best of all, the computer is not limited by the memory of a single brain – it has access to all the world’s information and knowledge, and huge amounts of processing outside the brain emulation. Our electronic brain could be literally the size of the planet – the whole internet and all the processing and storage connected to it.

With all these advances, the computer emulation of the brain could be many orders of magnitude superior to its organic equivalent, and yet it might be connected in real time to the original. We would have an effective brain extension in cyberspace, one that gives us immeasurably improved performance and intelligence. Most of our thoughts might happen in the machine world, and because of the direct link, we might experience them as if they had occurred inside our head.

Our brains are in some ways equivalent in nature to how computers were before the age of the internet. They are certainly useful, but communication between them is slow and inefficient. However, when our brains are directly connected to machines, and those machines are networked, then everyone else’s brains are also part of that network, so we have a global network of people’s brains, all connected together, with all the computers too.

So we may soon eradicate death. By the time today’s children are due to die, they will have been using brain extensions for many years, and backups will be taken for granted. Death need not be traumatic for our relatives. They will soon get used to us walking around in an android body. Funerals will be much more fun as the key participant makes a speech about what they are expecting from their new life. Biological death might still be unpleasant, but it need no longer be a career barrier.

In terms of timescales, rich people might have this capability by 2050 and the rest of us some time before 2070. Your life expectancy biologically is increasing every year, so even if you are over 35, you have a pretty good chance of surviving long enough to gain. Half the people alive today are under 35 and will almost certainly not die fully. Many more are under 50 and some of them will live on electronically too. If you are over 50, the chances are that you will be the last generation of your family ever to have a full death.

As a side-note, there are more conventional ways of achieving immortality. Some Egyptian pharaohs are remembered because of their great pyramids. A few philosophers, artists, engineers and scientists have left such great works that they are remembered millennia later. And of course, on a small scale, for the rest of us, making an impression on those around us keeps your memory going a few generations. Writing a book immortalises your words. And you may have a multimedia headstone on your grave, or one that at least links into augmented reality to bring up your old web page of social networking site profile. But frankly, I am with Woody Allen on this one “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying”. I just hope the technology arrives early enough.

The future of bacteria

Bacteria have already taken the prize for the first synthetic organism. Craig Venter’s team claimed the first synthetic bacterium in 2010.

Bacteria are being genetically modified for a range of roles, such as converting materials for easier extraction (e.g. coal to gas, or concentrating elements in landfill sites to make extraction easier), making new food sources (alongside algae), carbon fixation, pollutant detection and other sensory roles, decorative, clothing or cosmetic roles based on color changing, special surface treatments, biodegradable construction or packing materials, self-organizing printing… There are many others, even ignoring all the military ones.

I have written many times on smart yogurt now and it has to be the highlight of the bacterial future, one of the greatest hopes as well as potential danger to human survival. Here is an extract from a previous blog:

Progress is continuing to harness bacteria to make components of electronic circuits (after which the bacteria are dissolved to leave the electronics). Bacteria can also have genes added to emit light or electrical signals. They could later be enhanced so that as well as being able to fabricate electronic components, they could power them too. We might add various other features too, but eventually, we’re likely to end up with bacteria that contain electronics and can connect to other bacteria nearby that contain other electronics to make sophisticated circuits. We could obviously harness self-assembly and self-organisation, which are also progressing nicely. The result is that we will get smart bacteria, collectively making sophisticated, intelligent, conscious entities of a wide variety, with lots of sensory capability distributed over a wide range. Bacteria Sapiens.

I often talk about smart yogurt using such an approach as a key future computing solution. If it were to stay in a yogurt pot, it would be easy to control. But it won’t. A collective bacterial intelligence such as this could gain a global presence, and could exist in land, sea and air, maybe even in space. Allowing lots of different biological properties could allow colonization of every niche. In fact, the first few generations of bacteria sapiens might be smart enough to design their own offspring. They could probably buy or gain access to equipment to fabricate them and release them to multiply. It might be impossible for humans to stop this once it gets to a certain point. Accidents happen, as do rogue regimes, terrorism and general mad-scientist type mischief.

Transhumanists seem to think their goal is the default path for humanity, that transhumanism is inevitable. Well, it can’t easily happen without going first through transbacteria research stages, and that implies that we might well have to ask transbacteria for their consent before we can develop true transhumans.

Self-organizing printing is a likely future enhancement for 3D printing. If a 3D printer can print bacteria (onto the surface of another material being laid down, or as an ingredient in a suspension as the extrusion material itself, or even a bacterial paste, and the bacteria can then generate or modify other materials, or use self-organisation principles to form special structures or patterns, then the range of objects that can be printed will extend. In some cases, the bacteria may be involved in the construction and then die or be dissolved away.

Future materials: Variable grip

variable grip

 

Another simple idea for the future. Variable grip under electronic control.

Shape changing materials are springing up regularly now. There are shape memory metal alloys, proteins, polymer gel muscle fibers and even string (changes shape when it gets wet or dries again). It occurred to me that if you make a triangle out of carbon fibre or indeed anything hard, with a polymer gel base, and pull the base together, either the base moves down or the tip will move up. If tiny components this shape are embedded throughout a 3D structure such as a tire (tyre is the English spelling, the rest of this text just uses tire because most of the blog readers are Americans), then tiny spikes could be made to poke through the surface by contracting the polymer gel that forms the base. All you have to do is apply an electric field across it, and that makes the tire surface just another part of the car electronics along with the engine management system and suspension.

Tires that can vary their grip and wear according to road surface conditions might be attractive, especially in car racing, but also on the street. Emergency braking improvement would save lives, as would reduce skidding in rain or ice, and allowing the components to retract when not in use would greatly reduce their rate of wear. In racing, grip could be optimized for cornering and braking and wear could be optimized for the straights.

Fashion

Although I haven’t bothered yet to draw pretty pictures to illustrate, clothes could use variable grip too. Shoes and gloves would both benefit. Since both can have easy contact with skin (shoes can use socks as a relay), the active components could pick up electrical signals associated with muscle control or even thinking. Even stress is detectable via skin resistance measurement. Having gloves or shoes that change grip just by you thinking it would be like a cat with claws that push out when it wants to climb a fence or attack something. You could even be a micro-scale version of Wolverine. Climbers might want to vary the grip for different kinds of rock, extruding different spikes for different conditions.

Other clothes could use different materials for the components and still use the same basic techniques to push them out, creating a wide variety of electronically controllable fabric textures. Anything from smooth and shiny through to soft and fluffy could be made with a single adaptable fabric garment. Shoes, hosiery, underwear and outerwear can all benefit. Fun!

Switching people off

A very interesting development has been reported in the discovery of how consciousness works, where neuroscientists stimulating a particular brain region were able to switch a woman’s state of awareness on and off. They said: “We describe a region in the human brain where electrical stimulation reproducibly disrupted consciousness…”

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22329762.700-consciousness-onoff-switch-discovered-deep-in-brain.html.

The region of the brain concerned was the claustrum, and apparently nobody had tried stimulating it before, although Francis Crick and Christof Koch had suggested the region would likely be important in achieving consciousness. Apparently, the woman involved in this discovery was also missing some of her hippocampus, and that may be a key factor, but they don’t know for sure yet.

Mohamed Koubeissi and his the team at the George Washington university in Washington DC were investigating her epilepsy and stimulated her claustrum area with high frequency electrical impulses. When they did so, the woman lost consciousness, no longer responding to any audio or visual stimuli, just staring blankly into space. They verified that she was not having any epileptic activity signs at the time, and repeated the experiment with similar results over two days.

The team urges caution and recommends not jumping to too many conclusions. They did observe the obvious potential advantages as an anesthesia substitute if it can be made generally usable.

As a futurologist, it is my job to look as far down the road as I can see, and imagine as much as I can. Then I filter out all the stuff that is nonsensical, or doesn’t have a decent potential social or business case or as in this case, where research teams suggest that it is too early to draw conclusions. I make exceptions where it seems that researchers are being over-cautious or covering their asses or being PC or unimaginative, but I have no evidence of that in this case. However, the other good case for making exceptions is where it is good fun to jump to conclusions. Anyway, it is Saturday, I’m off work, so in the great words of Dr Emmett Brown in ‘Back to the future':  “Well, I figured, what the hell.”

OK, IF it works for everyone without removing parts of the brain, what will we do with it and how?

First, it is reasonable to assume that we can produce electrical stimulation at specific points in the brain by using external kit. Trans-cranial magnetic stimulation might work, or perhaps implants may be possible using injection of tiny particles that migrate to the right place rather than needing significant surgery. Failing those, a tiny implant or two via a fine needle into the right place ought to do the trick. Powering via induction should work. So we will be able to produce the stimulation, once the sucker victim subject has the device implanted.

I guess that could happen voluntarily, or via a court ordered protective device, as a condition of employment or immigration, or conditional release from prison, or a supervision order, or as a violent act or in war.

Imagine if government demands a legal right to access it, for security purposes and to ensure your comfort and safety, of course.

If you think 1984 has already gone too far, imagine a government or police officer that can switch you off if you are saying or thinking the wrong thing. Automated censorship devices could ensure that nobody discusses prohibited topics.

Imagine if people on the street were routinely switched off as a VIP passes to avoid any trouble for them.

Imagine a future carbon-reduction law where people are immobilized for an hour or two each day during certain periods. There might be a quota for how long you are allowed to be conscious each week to limit your environmental footprint.

In war, captives could have devices implanted to make them easy to control, simply turned off for packing and transport to a prison camp. A perimeter fence could be replaced by a line in the sand. If a prisoner tries to cross it, they are rendered unconscious automatically and put back where they belong.

Imagine a higher class of mugger that doesn’t like violence much and prefers to switch victims off before stealing their valuables.

Imagine being able to switch off for a few hours to pass the time on a long haul flight. Airlines could give discounts to passengers willing to be disabled and therefore less demanding of attention.

Imagine  a couple or a group of friends, or a fetish club, where people can turn each other off at will. Once off, other people can do anything they please with them – use them as dolls, as living statues or as mannequins, posing them, dressing them up. This is not an adult blog so just use your imagination – it’s pretty obvious what people will do and what sorts of clubs will emerge if an off-switch is feasible, making people into temporary toys.

Imagine if you got an illegal hacking app and could freeze the other people in your vicinity. What would you do?

Imagine if your off-switch is networked and someone else has a remote control or hacks into it.

Imagine if an AI manages to get control of such a system.

Having an off-switch installed could open a new world of fun, but it could also open up a whole new world for control by the authorities, crime control, censorship or abuse by terrorists and thieves and even pranksters.

 

 

Your most likely cause of death is being switched off

This one’s short and sweet.

The majority of you reading this blog live in the USA, UK, Canada or Australia. More than half of you are under 40.

That means your natural life expectancy is over 85, so statistically, your body will probably live until after 2060.

By then, electronic mind enhancement will probably mean that most of your mind runs on external electronics, not in your brain, so that your mind won’t die when your body does. You’ll just need to find a new body, probably an android, for those times you aren’t content being on the net. Most of us identify ourselves mainly as our mind, and would still think of ourselves as still alive if our mind carries on as if nothing much has happened, which is likely.

Electronic immortality is not true immortality though. Your mind can only survive on the net as long as it is supported by the infrastructure. That will be controlled by others. Future technology will likely be able to defend against asteroid strikes, power surges cause by solar storms and so on, so accidental death seems unlikely for hundreds of years. However, since minds supported on it need energy to continue running and electronics to be provided and maintained, and will want to make trips into the ‘real’ world, or even live there a lot of the time, they will have a significant resource footprint. They will probably not be considered as valuable as other people whose bodies are still alive. In fact they might be considered as competition – for jobs, resources, space, housing, energy… They may even be seen as easy targets for future cyber-terrorists.

So, it seems quite likely, maybe even inevitable, that life limits will be imposed on the vast majority of you. At some point you will simply be switched off. There might be some prioritization, competitions, lotteries or other selection mechanism, but only some will benefit from it.

Since you are unlikely to die when your body ceases to work, your most likely cause of death is therefore to be switched off. Sorry to break that to you.