Category Archives: communications

The future of digital

Many things are cyclical. Some things are a one way street. Digitization covers some things that shouldn’t be reversed, and some that should and will. I started work early enough to experience using an analog computer. Analog computers use analogs of things to help simulating them. So for example, you can simulate heat flow through a wall by using a battery to provide a voltage as an analog of the temperature difference and a resistor  to be an analog of the wall’s insulation. If you want a better result, you could simulate the heat capacity of the wall using a capacitor. A well-designed analog will produce a useful result. The best thing about analogs is that in some cases they are infinitely fast. Imagine writing a computer simulation of the convection currents in a glass of water. You could build a supercomputer to simulate every atom’s behavior digitally. Your program could include local sources of heat, take account of viscosity, chemical reactions among the impurities and everything else you can think of etc. You might decide to account for the movement of the earth and the Coriolis forces it would generate on the water as the current make the water move. If you want ridiculously precise results you could simulate the effects of every planet in the solar system on atomic movements. You could account for magnetic forces, electrostatic ones and so on. By now, your biggest supercomputer would be able to simulate the glass of water for a few microseconds before it is replaced by an upgrade. You can do it, but it isn’t ideal. The analog alternative is to pour a glass of water and watch it. Every atom, every subatomic particle in that glass, will instantaneously and continually account for every physical interaction with every passing photon, and every other particle in the universe, taking full account of space-time geography and the distances of each particle. It would work pretty well, it would be a good analog, even though it’s probably a glass of different water from a different tap. It will give you a continuous model at almost zero cost that works perfectly and greatly outperforms the digital one. Analog wins.

If you want to add 2+2, an analog computer will give you a result of roughly 4. The next time, it will still be roughly 4 but will be slightly different. A  digital one will always give an answer of precisely 4, unless you’ve messed up badly somewhere. Digital wins.

It is obvious that digital has some advantages and analog does too. Analog is less reproducible, liable to drift, is not always transparent and has many other faults that eventually led to it being replaced for most purpose by digital computing. The truth remains that a glass of water has more processing power than all the digital computers every built put together, if you want to simulate water behavior.

Digital and analog processing are both used in nature. In vision, the retina sends an essentially digital stream of data to the brain. In IT, pretty much all communications is done digitally, as is storage of data. It is far easier to repair the degradation that occurs over time or transmission that way. If a signal level has shrunk slightly, it will still be clear whether it is a 1 or a 0 so it can be corrected, reset to the right level and re-transmitted or stored. For an analog signal, degradation just accumulates until the signal disappears. Digital wins in most of IT.

But back to analog. Much of the processing in many electronic circuits and systems is done in the analog domain before digital takes over for transmission or computation. Even computer motherboards, graphics cards, fans and power supplies have resistors, capacitors and even a transformer can be thought of as an analog device. So analog processing and devices are with us still, just hiding behind the scenes.

I think analog computing will make a comeback, albeit in certain niches. Imagine a typical number-crunching problem for supercomputers, such as simulating heat and force transfer. Imagine making an actual analog of it using some futuristic putty and exposing that putty to actual forces and heat. If there are nano-sensors embedded throughout, you could measure the transfer of forces and heat directly and  not have to calculate it. Again the speed advantage of analog would return. Now suppose a hybrid machine with some such analogs and some digital programming too. Those bit best left to digital could be done digitally and others where real analogs could be made could shortcut the number-crunching requirements tremendously. The overall speed might be dramatically improved without sacrificing integrity. Furthermore, the old problems of drift faced by analog systems could be reduced or almost eliminated by frequent cross referencing and calibration as the system goes on.

Finally, AI may well have a powerful place in consciousness and AI realization. Many people believe AI would be best done using adaptive analog neurons. Until today I was one of them. However, I am starting to doubt that, and this looking again at analog has made me realize a bit more about consciousness techniques, so I will divert from this piece forthwith to write more on conscious computing.

The future of air

Time for a second alphabetic ‘The future of’ set. Air is a good starter.

Air is mostly a mixture of gases, mainly nitrogen and oxygen, but it also contains a lot of suspended dust, pollen and other particulates, flying creatures such as insects and birds, and of course bacteria and viruses. These days we also have a lot of radio waves, optical signals, and the cyber-content carried on them. Air isn’t as empty as it seems. But it is getting busier all the time.

Internet-of-things, location-based marketing data and other location-based services and exchanges will fill the air digitally with fixed and wandering data. I called that digital air when I wrote a full technical paper on it and I don’t intend to repeat it all now a decade later. Some of the ideas have made it into reality, many are still waiting for marketers and app writers to catch up.

The most significant recent addition is drones. There are already lots of them, in a wide range of sizes from insect size to aeroplane size. Some are toys, some airborne cameras for surveillance, aerial photography, monitoring and surveillance, and increasingly they are appearing for sports photography and tracking or other leisure pursuits. We will see a lot more of them in coming years. Drone-based delivery is being explored too, though I am skeptical of its likely success in domestic built up areas.

Personal swarms of follower drones will become common too. It’s already possible to have a drone follow you and keep you on video, mainly for sports uses, but as drones become smaller, you may one day have a small swarm of tiny drones around you, recording video from many angles, so you will be able to recreate events from any time in an entire 3D area around you, a 3D permasuperselfie. These could also be extremely useful for military and policing purposes, and it will make the decline of privacy terminal. Almost everything going on in public in a built up environment will be recorded, and a great deal of what happens elsewhere too.

We may see lots of virtual objects or creatures once augmented reality develops a bit more. Some computer games will merge with real world environments, so we’ll have aliens, zombies and various mythical creatures from any game populating our streets and skies. People may also use avatars that fly around like fairies or witches or aliens or mythical creatures, so they won’t all be AI entities, some will have direct human control. And then there are buildings that might also have virtual appearances and some of those might include parts of buildings that float around, or even some entire cities possibly like those buildings and city areas in the game Bioshock Infinite.

Further in the future, it is possible that physical structures might sometimes levitate, perhaps using magnets, or lighter than air construction materials such as graphene foam. Plasma may also be used as a building material one day, albeit far in the future.

I’m bored with air now. Time for B.

Increasing internet capacity: electron pipes

The electron pipe is a slightly mis-named high speed comms solution that would make optical fibre look like two bean cans and a bit of loose string. I invented it in 1990, but it still remains in the future since we can’t do it yet, and it might not even be possible, some of the physics is in doubt.  The idea is to use an evacuated tube and send a precision controlled beam of high energy particles down it instead of crude floods of electrons down a wire or photons in fibres. Here’s a pathetic illustration:

Electron pipe

 

Initially I though of using 1MeV electrons, then considered that larger particles such as neutrons or protons or even ionised atoms might be better, though neutrons would certainly be harder to control. The wavelength of 1MeV electrons would be pretty small, allowing very high frequency signals and data rates, many times what is possible with visible photons down fibres. Whether this could be made to work over long distances is questionable, but over short distances it should be feasible and might be useful for high speed chip interconnects.

The energy of the beam could be made a lot higher, increasing bandwidth, but 1MeV seamed a reasonable start point, offering a million times more bandwidth than fibre.

The Problem

Predictions for memory, longer term storage, cloud service demands and computing speeds are already heading towards fibre limits when millions of users are sharing single fibres. Although the limits won’t be reached soon, it is useful to have a technology in the R&D pipeline that can extend the life of the internet after fibre fills up, to avoid costs rising. If communication is not to become a major bottleneck (even assuming we can achieve these rates by then), new means of transmission need to be found.

The Solution

A way must be found to utilise higher frequency entities than light. The obvious candidates are either gamma rays or ‘elementary’ particles such as electrons, protons and their relatives. Planck’s Law shows that frequency is related to energy. A 1.3µm photon has a frequency of 2.3 x 1014. By contrast  1MeV gives a frequency of 2.4 x 10^20 and a factor of a million increase in bandwidth, assuming it can be used (much higher energies should be feasible if higher bandwidth is needed, 10Gev energies would give 10^24). An ‘electron pipe’ containing a beam of high energy electrons may therefore offer a longer term solution to the bandwidth bottleneck. Electrons are easily accelerated and contained and also reasonably well understood. The electron beam could be prevented form colliding with the pipe walls by strong magnetic fields which may become practical in the field through progress in superconductivity. Such a system may well be feasible. Certainly prospects of data rates of these orders are appealing.

Lots of R&D would be needed to develop such communication systems. At first glance, they would seem to be more suited to high speed core network links, where the presumably high costs could be justified. Obvious problems exist which need to be studied, such as mechanisms for ultra high speed modulation and detection of the signals. If the problems can be solved, the rewards are high. The optical ether idea suffers from bandwidth constraint problems. Adding factors of 10^6 – 10^10 on top of this may make a difference!

 

Will networking make the world safer?

No.

If you want a more detailed answer:

A long time ago when the web was young, we all hoped networking would make a better world. Everyone would know of all the bad things going on and would all group together and stop them. With nowhere to hide, oppressors would stop oppressing. 25 years on…

Since then, we’ve had spectacularly premature  announcements of how the internet and social networking in particular was responsible for bringing imminent peace in the world as the Arab spring emerged, followed not long after with proof of the naivety of such assumptions.

The pretty good global social networking we already have has also failed to eradicate oppression of women in large swathes of the world, hasn’t solved hunger or ensured universal supply of clean fresh water. It has however allowed ISIS to recruit better and spread their propaganda, and may be responsible for much of the political breakdown we are now seeing, with communities at each others’ throats that used to get along in mutual live-and-let-live.

The nets have so far failed to deliver on their promise, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they never will. On the other hand, the evidence so far suggests that many people simply misunderstood the consequences of letting people communicate better. A very large number of people believe you can solve any problem by talking about it. It clearly isn’t actually true.

The assumption that if only you would take the time to get to know other people and understand their point of view, you would get on well and live peacefully and all problems will somehow evaporate if only you talk, is simply wrong. People on both sides must want to solve the problem to make that work. If only one side wants to solve it, talking about it can actually increase conflict.

Talking helps people understand what they have in common, but it also exposes and potentially reinforces those areas where they differ.  I believe that is why we experience such vicious political debate lately. The people on each side, in each tribe if you like, can find one another, communicate, bond, and identify a common enemy. With lots of new-found allies, they feel more confident to attack, more confident of the size of their tribe, and of their moral superiority, assured via frequent reinforcement of their ideas.

Then as in much tribal warfare over millennia, it is no longer enough to find a peace agreement, the other side must now be belittled, demonized, subjugated and destroyed. That is a very real impact of the net, magnifying the tribal conflicts built into human nature. Talking can be good but it can also become counterproductive, revealing weaknesses, magnifying differences, and fostering hatred when there was once indifference.

Given that increasing communication is very two-sided, making it better and better might not help peace and love to prosper. Think about that a bit more. Suppose ISIS, instead of the basic marketing videos they use today, were to use a fully immersive virtual reality vision of the world they want to create, sanitized to show and enhance those areas of their vision that they want recruits to see. Suppose recruits could see how they might flourish and reign supreme over us infidel enemies, eradicating us while choosing which 72 virgins to have. Is that improving communications likely to help eradicate terrorism, or to increase it?

Sure, we can talk better to our enemies to discuss solutions and understand their ways and cultures so we can empathize better. Will that make peace with ISIS? Of course it won’t. Only the looniest and most naive would think otherwise. 

What about less extreme situations? We have everyday tribalism all around all the time but we now also have social reinforcement via social networks. People who once thought they had minority viewpoints so kept relatively quiet can now find others with similar views, then feel more powerful and become more vocal and even aggressive. If you are the only one in a village with an extreme view, you might have previously self censored to avoid being ostracized. If you become part of a worldwide community of millions of like mind, it is more tempting to air those views and become an activist, knowing you have backup.  With the added potential anonymity conferred by the network and no fear of physical attack, some people become more aggressive.

So social networks have increased the potential for tribal aggression as well as making people more aware of the world around them. On balance, it seems that tribal forces increase more than the forces to reduce oppression. Even those who claim to be defending others often do so more aggressively. Gentle persuasion is frequently replaced by inquisitions, witch hunts, fierce and destructive attacks.

If so, social networking is a bad thing overall in terms of peaceful coexistence. Meeting new people and staying in touch with friends and family still remain strongly beneficial to personal emotional well-being and also to cohesion within tribes. It is the combination of the enhanced personal feeling of security and the consequential bravery to engage in tribal conflict that is dangerous.

We see this new conflict in politics, religion, sexual attitudes, gender relations, racial conflicts, cultural conflicts, age, even in adherence to secular religions such as warmism. But especially in politics now; left and right no longer tolerate each other and the level of aggression between them increases continually.

If this increasing aggression and intolerance is really due to better social networking, then it is likely to get even worse as more and more people worldwide come online for longer and learn to use social networking tools more effectively.

As activists see more evidence that networking use produces results and reinforces their tribe and their effectiveness, they will do more of it. More activism will produce more extremism, leading to even more activism and more extremism. This circle of reinforcement might be very hard to escape. We may be doomed to more and more extremism, more aggressive relations between groups with different opinions, a society that is highly intolerant, and potentially unstable.

It is very sad that the optimism of the early net has been replaced by the stark reality of human nature. Tribal warfare goes back millennia, but was kept in check by geographic separation. Now that global migration and advanced social networking are mixing the tribes together, the inevitable conflicts are given a new and better equipped battlefield.

 

 

 

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 zip codes

Finally. Z. Zero, zoos, zebras, zip codes. Zip codes is the easiest one since I can use someone else’s work and just add a couple of notes.

This piece for the Spectator was already written by Rory Sutherland and fits the bill perfectly so I will just link to it: http://www.spectator.co.uk/life/the-wiki-man/9348462/the-best-navigation-idea-ive-seen-since-the-tube-map/.

It is about http://what3words.com/. Visit the site yourself, find out what words describe precisely where you are.

The idea in a nutshell is that there are so many words that combining three words is enough to give a unique address to every 3×3 metre square on the planet. Zip codes, or post codes to us brits, don’t do that nearly so well, so I really like this idea. I am currently sitting at stem.trees.wage. (I just noticed that the relevant google satellite image is about 2006, why so old?). It would allow a geographic web too, allowing you to send messages to geographic locations easily. I could send an email to orbit.escape.given.coffeemachine to make a cup of coffee. The 4th word is needed because a kettle, microwave and fridge also share that same square. The fatal flaw that ruins so many IoT ideas though is that I still have to go there to put a cup under the nozzle and to collect it once it’s full. Another one is that with that degree of precision, now that I’ve published the info, ISIS now has the coordinates to hit me right on the head (or my coffee machine). I think they probably have higher priorities though.

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 sky

The S installment of this ‘future of’ series. I have done streets, shopping, superstores, sticks, surveillance, skyscrapers, security, space, sports, space travel and sex before, some several times. I haven’t done sky before, so here we go.

Today when you look up during the day you typically see various weather features, the sun, maybe the moon, a few birds, insects or bats, maybe some dandelion or thistle seeds. As night falls, stars, planets, seasonal shooting stars and occasional comets may appear. To those we can add human contributions such as planes, microlights, gliders and helicopters, drones, occasional hot air balloons and blimps, helium party balloons, kites and at night-time, satellites, sometimes the space station, maybe fireworks. If you’re in some places, missiles and rockets may be unfortunate extras too, as might be the occasional parachutist or someone wearing a wing-suit or on a hang-glider. I guess we should add occasional space launches and returns too. I can’t think of any more but I might have missed some.

Drones are the most recent addition and their numbers will increase quickly, mostly for surveillance purposes. When I sit out in the garden, since we live in a quiet area, the noise from occasional  microlights and small planes is especially irritating because they fly low. I am concerned that most of the discussions on drones don’t tend to mention the potential noise nuisance they might bring. With nothing between them and the ground, sound will travel well, and although some are reasonably quiet, other might not be and the noise might add up. Surveillance, spying and prying will become the biggest nuisances though, especially as miniaturization continues to bring us many insect-sized drones that aren’t noisy and may visually be almost undetectable. Privacy in your back garden or in the bedroom with unclosed curtains could disappear. They will make effective distributed weapons too:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/07/07/drones-it-isnt-the-reapers-and-predators-you-should-worry-about/

Adverts don’t tend to appear except on blimps, and they tend to be rare visitors. A drone was this week used to drag a national flag over a football game. In the Batman films, Batman is occasionally summoned by shining a spotlight with a bat symbol onto the clouds. I forgot which film used the moon to show an advert. It is possible via a range of technologies that adverts could soon be a feature of the sky, day and night, just like in Bladerunner. In the UK, we are now getting used to roadside ads, however unwelcome they were when they first arrived, though they haven’t yet reached US proportions. It will be very sad if the sky is hijacked as an advertising platform too.

I think we’ll see some high altitude balloons being used for communications. A few companies are exploring that now. Solar powered planes are a competing solution to the same market.

As well as tiny drones, we might have bubbles. Kids make bubbles all the time but they burst quickly. With graphene, a bubble could prevent helium escaping or even be filled with graphene foam, then it would float and stay there. We might have billions of tiny bubbles floating around with tiny cameras or microphones or other sensors. The cloud could be an actual cloud.

And then there’s fairies. I wrote about fairies as the future of space travel.

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/06/06/fairies-will-dominate-space-travel/

They might have a useful role here too, and even if they don’t, they might still want to be here, useful or not.

As children, we used to call thistle seeds fairies, our mums thought it was cute to call them that. Biomimetics could use that same travel technique for yet another form of drone.

With all the quadcopter, micro-plane, bubble, balloon and thistle seed drones, the sky might soon be rather fuller than today. So maybe there is a guaranteed useful role for fairies, as drone police.

 

 

 

The Future of IoT – virtual sensors for virtual worlds

I recently acquired a point-and-click thermometer for Futurizon, which gives an instant reading when you point it at something. I will soon know more about the world around me, but any personal discoveries I make are quite likely to be well known to science already. I don’t expect to win a Nobel prize by discovering breeches of the second law of thermodynamics, but that isn’t the point. The thermometer just measures the transmission from a particular point in a particular frequency band, which indicates what temperature it is. It cost about £20, a pretty cheap stimulation tool to help me think about the future by understanding new things about the present. I already discovered that my computer screen doubles as a heater, but I suspected that already. Soon, I’ll know how much my head warms when if think hard, and for the futurology bit, where the best locations are to put thermal IoT stuff.

Now that I am discovering the joys or remote sensing, I want to know so much more though. Sure, you can buy satellites for a billion pounds that will monitor anything anywhere, and for a few tens of thousands you can buy quite sophisticated lab equipment. For a few tens, not so much is available and I doubt the tax man will agree that Futurizon needs a high end oscilloscope or mass spectrometer so I have to set my sights low. The results of this blog justify the R&D tax offset for the thermometer. But the future will see drops in costs for most high technologies so I also expect to get far more interesting kit cheaply soon.

Even starting with the frequent assumption that in the future you can do anything, you still have to think what you want to do. I can get instant temperature readings now. In the future, I may also want a full absorption spectrum, color readings, texture and friction readings, hardness, flexibility, sound absorption characteristics, magnetic field strength, chemical composition, and a full range of biological measurements, just for fun. If Spock can have one, I want one too.

But that only covers reality, and reality will only account for a small proportion of our everyday life in the future. I may also want to check on virtual stuff, and that needs a different kind of sensor. I want to be able to point at things that only exist in virtual worlds. It needs to be able to see virtual worlds that are (at least partly) mapped onto real physical locations, and those that are totally independent and separate from the real world. I guess that is augmented reality ones and virtual reality ones. Then it starts getting tricky because augmented reality and virtual reality are just two members of a cyberspace variants set that runs to more than ten trillion members. I might do another blog soon on what they are, too big a topic to detail here.

People will be most interested in sensors to pick up geographically linked cyberspace. Much of the imaginary stuff is virtual worlds in computer games or similar, and many of those have built-in sensors designed for their spaces. So, my character can detect caves or forts or shrines from about 500m away in the virtual world of Oblivion (yes, it is from ages ago but it is still enjoyable). Most games have some sort of sensors built-in to show you what is nearby and some of its properties.

Geographically linked cyberspace won’t all be augmented reality because some will be there for machines, not people, but you might want to make sensors for it all the same, for many reasons, most likely for navigating it, debugging, or for tracking and identifying digital trespass. The last one is interesting. A rival company might well construct an augmented reality presence that allows you to see their products alongside ones in a physical shop. It doesn’t have to be in a properly virtual environment, a web page is still a location in cyberspace and when loaded, that instance takes on a geographic mapping via that display so it is part of that same trespass. That is legal today, and it started many years ago when people started using Amazon to check for better prices while in a book shop. Today it is pretty ubiquitous. We need sensors that can detect that. It may be accepted today as fair competition, but it might one day be judged as unfair competition by regulators for various reasons, and if so, they’ll need some mechanism to police it. They’ll need to be able to detect it. Not easy if it is just a web page that only exists at that location for a few seconds. Rather easier if it is a fixed augmented reality and you can download a map.

If for some reason a court does rule that digital trespass is illegal, one way of easy(though expensive) way of solving it would be to demand that all packets carry a geographic location, which of course the site would know when the person clicks on that link. To police that, turning off location would need to be blocked, or if it is turned off, sites would not be permitted to send you certain material that might not be permitted at that location. I feel certain there would be better and cheaper and more effective solutions.

I don’t intend to spend any longer exploring details here, but it is abundantly clear from just inspecting a few trees that making detectors for virtual worlds will be a very large and diverse forest full of dangers. Who should be able to get hold of the sensors? Will they only work in certain ‘dimensions’ of cyberspace? How should the watchers be watched?

The most interesting thing I can find though is that being able to detect cyberspace would allow new kinds of adventures and apps. You could walk through a doorway and it also happens to double as a portal between many virtual universes. And you might not be able to make that jump in any other physical location. You might see future high street outlets that are nothing more than teleport chambers for cyberspace worlds. They might be stuffed with virtual internet of things things and not one one of them physical. Now that’s fun.

 

Ground up data is the next big data

This one sat in my draft folder since February, so I guess it’s time to finish it.

Big Data – I expect you’re as sick of hearing that term as I am. Gathering loads of data on everything you or your company or anything else you can access can detect, measure, record, then analyzing the hell out of it using data mining, an equally irritating term.

I long ago had a quick twitter exchange with John Hewitt, who suggested “What is sensing but the energy-constrained competition for transmission to memory, as memory is but that for expression?”. Neurons compete to see who gets listened too.  Yeah, but I am still not much wiser as to what sensing actually is. Maybe I need a brain upgrade. (It’s like magnets. I used to be able to calculate the magnetic field densities around complicated shaped objects – it was part of my first job in missile design – but even though I could do all the equations around EM theory, even general relativity, I still am no wiser how a magnetic field actually becomes a force on an object. I have an office littered with hundreds of neodymium magnets and I spend hours playing with them and I still don’t understand). I can read about neurons all day but I still don’t understand how a bunch of photons triggering a series of electro-chemical reactions results in me experiencing an image. How does the physical detection become a conscious experience?

Well, I wrote some while back that we could achieve a conscious computer within two years. It’s still two years because nobody has started using the right approach yet. I have to stress the ‘could’, because nobody actually intends to do it in that time frame, but I really believe some half-decent lab could if they tried.  (Putting that into perspective, Kurzweil and his gang at Google are looking at 2029.) That two years estimate relies heavily on evolutionary development, for me the preferred option when you don’t understand how something works, as is the case with consciousness. It is pretty easy to design conscious computers at a black box level. The devil is in the detail. I argued that you could make a conscious computer by using internally focused sensing to detect processes inside the brain, and using a sensor structure with a symmetrical feedback loop. Read it:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/12/28/we-could-have-a-conscious-machine-by-end-of-play-2015/

In a nutshell, if you can feel thoughts in the same way as you feel external stimuli, you’d be conscious. I think. The symmetrical feedback loop bit is just a small engineering insight.

The missing link in that is still the same one: how does sensing work? How do you feel?

At a superficial level, you point a sensor at something and it produces a signal in some sort of relationship to whatever it is meant to sense. We can do that bit. We understand that. Your ear produces signals according to the frequencies and amplitudes of incoming sound waves, a bit like a microphone. Just the same so far. However, it is by some undefined processes later that you consciously experience the sound. How? That is the hard problem in AI. It isn’t just me that doesn’t know the answer. ‘How does red feel?’ is a more commonly used variant of the same question.

When we solve that, we will replace big data as ‘the next big thing’. If we can make sensor systems that experience or feel something rather than just producing a signal, that’s valuable already. If those sensors pool their shared experience, another similar sensor system could experience that. Basic data quickly transmutes into experience, knowledge, understanding, insight and very quickly, value, lots of it. Artificial neural nets go some way to doing that, but they still lack consciousness. Simulated neural networks can’t even get beyond a pretty straightforward computation, putting all the inputs into an equation. The true sensing bit is missing. The complex adaptive analog neural nets in our brain clearly achieve something deeper than a man-made neural network.

Meanwhile, most current AI work barks up a tree in a different forest. IBM’s Watson will do great things; Google’s search engine AI will too. But they aren’t conscious and can’t be. They’re just complicated programs running on digital processors, with absolutely zero awareness of anything they are doing. Digital programs on digital computers will never achieve any awareness, no matter how fast the chips are.

However, back in the biological realm, nature manages just fine. So biomimetics offers a lot of hope. We know we didn’t get from a pool of algae to humans in one go. At some point, organisms started moving according to light, chemical gradients, heat, touch. That most basic process of sensing may have started out coupled to internal processes that caused movement without any consciousness. But if we can understand the analog processes (electrochemical, electronic, mechanical) that take the stimulus through to a response, and can replicate it using our electronic technology, we would already have actuator circuits, even if we don’t have any form of sensation or consciousness yet. A great deal of this science has been done already of course. The computational side of most chemical and physical processes can be emulated electronically by some means or another. Actuators will be a very valuable part of the cloud, but we already have the ability to make actuators by more conventional means, so doing it organically or biomimetically just adds more actuation techniques to the portfolio. Valuable but not a terribly important breakthrough.

Looking at the system a big further along the evolutionary timeline, where eyes start to develop, where the most primitive nervous systems and brains start, where higher level processing is obviously occurring and inputs are starting to become sensations, we should be able to what is changed or changing. It is the emergence of sensation we need to identify, even if the reaction is still an unconscious reflex. We don’t need to reverse engineer the human brain. Simple organisms are simpler to understand. Feeding the architectural insights we gain from studying those primitive systems into our guided evolution engines is likely to be far faster as a means to generating true machine consciousness and strong AI. That’s how we could develop consciousness in a couple of years rather than 15.

If we can make primitive sensing devices that work like those in primitive organisms, and can respond to specific sorts of sensory input, then that is a potential way of increasing the coverage of cloud sensing and even actuation. It would effectively be a highly distributed direct response system. With clever embedding of emergent phenomena techniques (such as cellular automata, flocking etc) , it could be a quite sophisticated way of responding to quite complex distributed inputs, avoiding some of the need for big data processing. If we can gather the outputs from these simple sensors and feed them into others, that will be an even better sort of biomimetic response system. That sort of direct experience of a situation is very different from a data mined result, especially if actuation capability is there too. The philosophical question as to whether that inclusion of that second bank of sensors makes the system in any way conscious remains, but it would certainly be very useful and valuable. The architecture we end up with via this approach may look like neurons, and could even be synthetic neurons, but that may be only one solution among many. Biology may have gone the neuron route but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is the only possibility. It may be that we could one day genetically modify bacteria to produce their own organic electronics to emulate the key processes needed to generate sensation, and to power them by consuming nutrients from their environment. I suggested smart yogurt based on this idea many years ago, and believe that it could achieve vast levels of intelligence.

Digitizing and collecting the signals from the system at each stage would generate lots of  data, and that may be used by programs to derive other kinds of results, or to relay the inputs to other analog sensory systems elsewhere. (It isn’t always necessary to digitize signals to transmit them, but it helps limit signal degradation and quickly becomes important if the signal is to travel far and is essential if it is to be recorded for later use or time shifting). However, I strongly suspect that most of the value in analog sensing and direct response is local, coupled to direct action or local processing and storage.

If we have these sorts of sensors liberally spread around, we’d create a truly smart environment, with local sensing and some basic intelligence able to relay sensation remotely to other banks of sensors elsewhere for further processing or even ultimately consciousness. The local sensors could be relatively dumb like nerve endings on our skin, feeding in  signals to a more connected virtual nervous system, or a bit smarter, like neural retinal cells, doing a lot of analog pre-processing before relaying them via ganglia cells, and maybe part of a virtual brain. If they are also capable of or connected to some sort of actuation, then we would be constructing a kind of virtual organism, with tendrils covering potentially the whole globe, and able to sense and interact with its environment in an intelligent way.

I use the term virtual not because the sensors wouldn’t be real, but because their electronic nature allows connectivity to many systems, overlapping, hierarchical or distinct. Any number of higher level systems could ‘experience’ them as part of its system, rather as if your fingers could be felt by the entire human population. Multiple higher level virtual organisms could share the same basic sensory/data inputs. That gives us a whole different kind of cloud sensing.

By doing processing locally, in the analog domain, and dealing with some of the response locally, a lot of traffic across the network is avoided and a lot of remote processing. Any post-processing that does occur can therefore add to a higher level of foundation. A nice side effect from avoiding all the extra transmission and processing is increased environmental friendliness.

So, we’d have a quite different sort of data network, collecting higher quality data, essentially doing by instinct what data mining does with huge server farms and armies of programmers. Cloudy, but much smarter than a straightforward sensor net.

… I think.

It isn’t without risk though. I had a phone discussion yesterday on the dangers of this kind of network. In brief, it’s dangerous.