Category Archives: communications

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?


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:

It is about 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:

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

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.

Terminators also don’t have to be machines. They could be organic, products of synthetic biology. My own contribution here is smart yogurt:

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: &

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:

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:

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.

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:

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.

The future of questions

The late Douglas Adams had many great ideas. One of the best was the computer Deep Thought, built to answer The question of ‘life, the universe and everything’ that took 6 million years to come up with the answer 42. It then had to design a far bigger machine to determine what the question actually was.

Finding the right question is often much harder than answering it. Much of observational comedy is based on asking the simplest questions that we just happen never to have thought of asking before.

A good industrial illustration is in network design. A long time ago I used to design computer communication protocols, actually a pretty easy job for junior engineers. While doing one design, I discovered a flaw in a switch manufacturer’s design that would allow data networks to be pushed into a gross overload situation and crashed repeatedly by a single phone call. I simply asked a question that hadn’t been asked before. My question was “can computer networks be made to resonate dangerously?” That’s the sort of question bridge designers have asked every time they’ve built a bridge since roman times, with the notable exception of the designers of London’s Millennium Bridge, who had to redesign their’s. All I did was apply a common question from one engineering discipline to another. I did that because I was trained as a systems engineer, not as a specialist. It only took a few seconds to answer in my head and a few hours to prove it via simulation, so it was a pretty simple question to answer (yes they can), but it had taken many years before anyone bothered to ask it.

More importantly, that question couldn’t have been asked much before the 20th century, because the basic knowledge or concept of a computer network wasn’t there yet. It isn’t easy to think of a question that doesn’t derive from existent culture (which includes the full extent of fiction of course). As new ideas are generated by asking and answering questions, so the culture gradually extends, and new questions become possible. But we don’t ask them all, only a few. Even with the culture and knowledge we already have at any point, it is possible to ask far more questions, and some of them will lead to very interesting answers and a few of those could change the world.

Last night I had a dream where I was after-dinner speaking to some wealthy entrepreneurs (that sort of thing is my day job). One of them challenged me that ideas were hard to come by and as proof of his point asked me why the wheel had never been reinvented (actually it is often reinvented, just like the bicycle – all decent engineers have reinvented the bicycle to some degree at some point, and if you haven’t yet, you probably will. You aren’t allowed to die until you have). Anyway, I invented the plasma caterpillar track there and then as my answer to show that ideas are ten a penny and that being an entrepreneur is about having the energy and determination to back them, not the idea itself. That’s why I stick with ideas, much less work. Dreams often violate causality, at least mine do, and one department of my brain obviously contrived that situation to air an idea from the R&D department, but in the dream it was still the question that caused the invention. Plasma caterpillar tracks are a dream-class invention. Once daylight appears, you can see that they need work, but in this case, I also can see real potential, so I might do that work, or you can beat me to it. If you do and you get rich, buy me a beer. Sorry, I’m rambling.

How do you ask the right question? How do you even know what area to ask the right question in? How do you discover what questions are possible to ask? Question space may be infinite, but we only have a map of a small area with only a few paths and features on it. Some tools are already known to work well and thousands of training staff use them every day in creativity courses.

One solution is to try to peel back and ask what it is you are really trying to solve. Maybe the question isn’t ‘what logo should we use?’ but ‘what image do we want to present?’, or is it ‘how can we appeal to those customers?’ or ‘how do we improve our sales?’ or ‘how do we get more profit?’ or ‘how can we best serve shareholders?’. Each layer generates different kinds of answers.

Another mechanism I use personally is to matrix solutions and industries, applying questions or solutions from one industry to another, or notionally combining random industries. A typical example: Take TV displays and ask why can’t makeup also change 50 times a second? If the answer isn’t obvious, look at how nature does displays, can some of those techniques be dragged into makeup? Yes, they can, and you could make smart makeup using similar micro-structures to those that butterflies and beetles use and use the self-organisation developing in materials science to arrange the particles automatically.

Dragging solutions and questions from one area to another often generates lots of ideas. Just list every industry sector you can think of (and nature), and all the techs or techniques or procedures they use and cross reference every box against every other. By the time you’ve filled in every box, it will be long overdue to start again because they’ll all have moved on.

But however effective they are, these mechanistic techniques only fill in some of the question space and some can be addressed at least partly by AI. There is still a vast area unexplored, even with existing knowledge. Following paths is fine, but you need to explore off-road too. Group-think and cultural immersion stand in the way of true creativity. You can’t avoid your mind being directed in particular directions that have been ingrained since birth, and some genetic.

That leads some people to the conclusion that you need young fresh minds rather than older ones, but it isn’t just age that determines creativity, it is susceptibility to authority too, essentially thinking how you’re told to think. Authority isn’t just parents and teachers, or government, but colleagues and friends, mainly your peer group. People often don’t see peers as authority but needing their approval is as much a force as any. I am frequently amused spotting young people on the tube that clearly think they are true individuals with no respect for authority. They stick out a mile because they wear the uniform that all the young people who are individuals and don’t respect authority wear. It’s almost compulsory. They are so locked in by the authority and cultural language of those they want to impress by being different that they all end up being the same. Many ‘creatives’ suffer the same problem, you can often spot them from a distance too, and it’s a fairly safe bet that their actual creativity is very bounded. The fact is that some people are mentally old before they leave school and some die of old age yet still young in mind and heart.

How do you solve that? Well, apart from being young, one aspect of being guided down channels via susceptibility to authority is understanding the rules. If you are too new in a field to know how it works, who everyone is, how the tools work or even most of the basic fundamental knowledge of the field, then you are in an excellent position to ask the right questions. Some of my best ideas have been when I have just started in a new area. I do work in every sector now so my mind is spread very thinly, and it’s always easy to generate new ideas when you aren’t prejudiced by in-depth knowledge. If I don’t know that something can’t work, that you tried it ages ago and it didn’t, so you put it away and forgot about it, then I might think of it, and the technology might well have moved on since then and it might work now, or in 10 years time when I know the tech will catch up. I forget stuff very quickly too and although that can be a real nuisance it also minimizes prejudices so can aid this ‘creativity via naivety’.

So you could make sure that staff get involved in other people’s projects regularly, often with those in different parts of the company. Make sure they go on occasional workshops with others to ensure cross-fertilization. Make sure you have coffee areas and coffee times that make people mix and chat. The coffee break isn’t time wasted. It won’t generate new products or ideas every day but it will sometimes.

Cultivating a questioning culture is good too. Just asking obvious questions as often as you can is good. Why is that there? How does it work? What if we changed it? What if the factory burned down tomorrow, how would we rebuild it? Why the hell am I filling in this form?

Yet another one is to give people ‘permission’ to think outside the box. Many people have to follow procedures in their jobs for very good reasons, so they don’t always naturally challenge the status quo, and many even pursue careers that tend to be structured and ordered. There is nothing wrong with that, each to their own, but sometimes people in any area might need to generate some new ideas. A technique I use is to present some really far future and especially seemingly wacky ones to them before making them do their workshop activity. Having listened to some moron talking probable crap and getting away with it gives them permission to generate some wacky ideas too, and some invariably turn out to be good ones.

These techniques can improve everyday creativity but they still can’t generate enough truly out of the box questions to fill in the map.

I think what we need is the random question generator. There are a few random question generators out there now. Some ask mathematical questions to give kids practice before exams. Some just ask random pre-written questions from a database. They aren’t the sort we need though. We won’t be catapulted into a new era of enlightenment by being asked the answer to 73+68 or ones that were already on a list. Maybe I should have explored more pages on google, but most seemed to bark up the wrong tree. The better approach might be to copy random management jargon generators. Tech jargon ones exist too. Some are excellent fun. They are the sort we need. They combine various words from long categorized lists in grammatically plausible sequences to come out with plausible sounding terms. I am pretty sure that’s how they write MBA courses.

We can extend that approach to use a full vocabulary. If a question generator asks random questions using standard grammatical rules and a basic dictionary attack, (a first stage filtration process) most of the questions filtering through would still not make sense (e.g, why are all moons square?). But now we have AI engines that can parse sentences and filter out nonsensical ones or ones that simply contradict known facts and the web is getting a lot better at being machine-comprehensible. Careful though, some of those facts might not be any more.

After this AI filtration stage, we’d have a lot of questions that do make sense. A next stage filtration could discover which ones have already been asked and which of those have also been answered, and which of those answers have been accepted as valid. These stages will reveal some questions still awaiting proper responses, or where responses are dubious or debatable. Some will be about trivia, but some will be in areas that might seem to be commercially or socially valuable.

Some of the potentially valuable ones would be suited to machines to answer too. So they could start using spare cycles on machines to increase knowledge that way. Companies already do this internally with their big data programs for their own purposes, but it could work just as well as a global background task for humanity as a whole, with the whole of the net as one of its data sources. Machines could process data and identify potential new markets or products or identify social needs, and even suggest how they could be addressed and which companies might be able to do them. This could increase employment and GDP and solve some social issues that people weren’t even aware of.

Many would not be suited to AI and humans could search them for inspiration. Maybe we could employ people in developing countries as part of aid programs. That provides income and utilizes the lack of prejudice that comes with unfamiliarity with our own culture. Another approach is to make the growing question database online and people would make apps that deliver randomly selected questions to you to inspire you when you’re bored. There would be enough questions to make sure you are usually the first to have ever seen it. When you do, you could rate it as meaningless, don’t care, interesting, or wow that’s a really good question, maybe some other boxes. Obviously you could also produce answers and link to them too. Lower markings would decrease their reappearance probability, whereas really interesting ones would be seen by lots of people and some would be motivated to great answers.

Would it work? How could this be improved? What techniques might lead us to the right questions? Well, I just asked those ones and this blog is my first attempt at an answer. Feel free to add yours.



The future of prying

Prying is one side of the privacy coin, hiding being the other side.

Today, lots of snap-chat photos have been released, and no doubt some people are checking to see if there are any of people they know, and it is a pretty safe bet that some will send links to compromising pics of colleagues (or teachers) to others who know them. It’s a sort of push prying isn’t it?

There is more innocent prying too. Checking out Zoopla to see how much your neighbour got for their house is a little bit nosy but not too bad, or at the extremely innocent end of the line, reading someone’s web page is the sort of prying they actually want some people to do, even if not necessarily you.

The new security software I just installed lets parents check out on their kids online activity. Protecting your kids is good but monitoring every aspect of their activity just isn’t, it doesn’t give them the privacy they deserve and probably makes them used to being snooped on so that they accept state snooping more easily later in life. Every parent has to draw their own line, but kids do need to feel trusted as well as protected.

When adults install tracking apps on their partner’s phones, so they can see every location they’ve visited and every call or message they’ve made, I think most of us would agree that is going too far.

State surveillance is increasing rapidly. We often don’t even think of it as such, For example, when speed cameras are linked ‘so that the authorities can make our roads safer’, the incidental monitoring and recording of our comings and goings collected without the social debate. Add that to the replacement of tax discs by number plate recognition systems linked to databases, and even more data is collected. Also ‘to reduce crime’, video from millions of CCTV cameras is also stored and some is high enough quality to be analysed by machine to identify people’s movements and social connectivity. Then there’s our phone calls, text messages, all the web and internet accesses, all these need to be stored, either in full or at least the metadata, so that ‘we can tackle terrorism’. The state already has a very full picture of your life, and it is getting fuller by the day. When it is a benign government, it doesn’t matter so much, but if the date is not erased after a short period, then you need also to worry about future governments and whether they will also be benign, or whether you will be one of the people they want to start oppressing. You also need to worry that increasing access is being granted to your data to a wider variety of a growing number of public sector workers for a widening range of reasons, with seemingly lower security competence, meaning that a good number of people around you will be able to find out rather more about you than they really ought. State prying is always sold to the electorate via assurances that it is to make us safer and more secure and reduce crime, but the state is staffed by your neighbors, and in the end, that means that your neighbors can pry on you.

Tracking cookies are a fact of everyday browsing but mostly they are just trying to get data to market to us more effectively. Reading every email to get data for marketing may be stretching the relationship with the customer to the limits, but many of us gmail users still trust Google not to abuse our data too much and certainly not to sell on our business dealings to potential competitors. It is still prying though, however automated it is, and a wider range of services are being linked all the time. The internet of things will provide data collection devices all over homes and offices too. We should ask how much we really trust global companies to hold so much data, much of it very personal, which we’ve seen several times this year may be made available to anyone via hackers or forced to be handed over to the authorities. Almost certainly, bits of your entire collected and processed electronic activity history could get you higher insurance costs, in trouble with family or friends or neighbors or the boss or the tax-man or the police. Surveillance doesn’t have to be real time. Databases can be linked, mashed up, analysed with far future software or AI too. In the ongoing search for crimes and taxes, who knows what future governments will authorize? If you wouldn’t make a comment in front of a police officer or tax-man, it isn’t safe to make it online or in a text.

Allowing email processing to get free email is a similar trade-off to using a supermarket loyalty card. You sell personal data for free services or vouchers. You have a choice to use that service or another supermarket or not use the card, so as long as you are fully aware of the deal, it is your lifestyle choice. The lack of good competition does reduce that choice though. There are not many good products or suppliers out there for some services, and in a few there is a de-facto monopoly. There can also be a huge inconvenience and time loss or social investment cost in moving if terms and conditions change and you don’t want to accept the deal any more.

On top of that state and global company surveillance, we now have everyone’s smartphones and visors potentially recording anything and everything we do and say in public and rarely a say in what happens to that data and whether it is uploaded and tagged in some social media.

Some companies offer detective-style services where they will do thorough investigations of someone for a fee, picking up all they can learn from a wide range of websites they might use. Again, there are variable degrees that we consider acceptable according to context. If I apply for a job, I would think it is reasonable for the company to check that I don’t have a criminal record, and maybe look at a few of the things I write or tweet to see what sort of character I might be. I wouldn’t think it appropriate to go much further than that.

Some say that if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear, but none of them has a 3 digit IQ. The excellent film ‘Brazil’ showed how one man’s life was utterly destroyed by a single letter typo in a system scarily similar to what we are busily building.

Even if you are a saint, do you really want the pervert down the road checking out hacked databases for personal data on you or your family, or using their public sector access to see all your online activity?

The global population is increasing, and every day a higher proportion can afford IT and know how to use it. Networks are becoming better and AI is improving so they will have greater access and greater processing potential. Cyber-attacks will increase, and security leaks will become more common. More of your personal data will become available to more people with better tools, and quite a lot of them wish you harm. Prying will increase geometrically, according to Metcalfe’s Law I think.

My defense against prying is having an ordinary life and not being famous or a major criminal, not being rich and being reasonably careful on security. So there are lots of easier and more lucrative targets. But there are hundreds of millions of busybodies and jobsworths and nosy parkers and hackers and blackmailers out there with unlimited energy to pry, as well as anyone who doesn’t like my views on a topic so wants to throw some mud, and their future computers may be able to access and translate and process pretty much anything I type, as well as much of what I say and do anywhere outside my home.

I find myself self-censoring hundreds of times a day. I’m not paranoid. There are some people out to get me, and you, and they’re multiplying fast.