Category Archives: Computing

The Future of Games (recycled from 2005)

I was trawling through some old documents and stumbled on this one from just over 10 years ago. The message still rings true, even if the recession has shifted the time frame somewhat compared to what I though then.

Games are getting serious

Ian Pearson, August 2005

Games are designed to be fun, but future games might be so much fun that they could start causing big social problems.

Forget the 15 inch monitor most people use today. What we are really talking about for tomorrow’s games is full immersion. Think Star Trek holodeck. Technology by 2020 will allow us to connect our nervous system to our computers, sampling nerve signals and recording every kind of sensation, replaying them in holiday memories, in communications, or in computer games. It will work using active skin, with electronics printed onto the skin, and tiny electronic components painlessly blown into the skin itself using compressed air jets. Some of these devices will link to nerve endings in our skin.

With touch, hearing and vision, computer games will be much more compelling. By 2020, another device that will be routine is the active contact lens, which uses tiny lasers and micro-mirrors to raster scan images straight onto your retina. This will give us a totally immersive 3D display.

Now imagine what people will do with this. With the massive processing and graphics capability of 2020 games machines, people could live all day in a pretty convincing full sensory virtual reality environment., and could live a fantasy life well beyond their real life means. Someone with a lousy real life, but enough pocket money to buy a games console, might effectively drop out of real life apart from eating, drinking, sleeping and going to the loo. And even in those activities, they can have a constant augmented reality overlay to make them more visually appealing.

But in their fantasy worlds, where they can kill everything or have sex with everyone they fancy, their brains might be corrupted to a point where they can no longer easily mix with civilised society. The real world will undoubtedly see more violence and more rape and sexual assaults.

But it doesn’t stop there. By 2030, robotics technology will be much more advanced. Some robots can already walk and dance. Polymer gel muscles and outer coatings will make many future robots look and feel like real people. The androids of science fiction are not long away now.

So how long will it be before the totally inoffensive (but exciting) Robot Wars is replaced by an android version of the Roman gladiator games? We would surely never stoop to using real people again, but why not androids? Even if they do have the latest AI modules with full emotions and self awareness? They are just machines, so who cares?  I really think that line of argument might well hold sway with many people. It is sad, but this century might well see the return of the lowest form of entertainment ever invented by man. Games are getting serious.




Driverless pod transport system

I badly documented my latest idea of an ultra-cheap transport system in I think I need another blog to separate out the idea from the background. Look at my previous blog for the appropriate pictures.

We’re seeing a lot of enthusiasm now for electric cars and in parallel, for self-driving cars. I support both of those, and I like the new Next system that is extremely close to my own ideas from 1987 when I first looked at cars from a performance engineer’s viewpoint and realized that self driving cars could drive millimeters apart, reducing drag and greatly reducing congestion. I estimated back then that they could improve road capacity by a factor of 5. Many others have since simulated such systems and the same factor of 5 has popped up a few times now.

Self-driving pods and electrically assisted bike lane

Self-driving pods and electrically assisted bike lane


Next have visualized the same idea nicely, but the world is more receptive now. for their nice video, although I’d envisage rather more pods in most areas, almost filling the entire road area.

I’ve lectured in vain many times to persuade authorities to divert investment away from 20th century rail system to roads using self driving cars. The UK’s HS2 system is no more than lipstick on a 20th century pig. Pig it remains, obsolete ages ago, though our idiotic government remains determined to build it anyway, wasting £70Bn even by charitable estimates. Systems similar to Next’s could replace HS2 and reduce journey times for everyone, not just those whose starting point and destination are very close to the terminals. I wish them well. But I think there is an even better solution, that is feasible in a similar time-frame, and I have no doubt they could pick it up and run with it. Or Tesla or Google or Apple or Toyota or any other car company.

My realization is that we don’t need self driving cars either. Take exactly the Next system, with its nicely trapezoidal pods that nest together. They will need a smooth road surface if they are to ride in contact or millimeters apart, or they will constantly bump into each other and create irritating vibration. Make them ride a centimeter or two apart and it will solve that.

Then start looking at each part of the system.

They each have a computer on board to drive the pod. You don’t need that, because everyone has a smart phone now which already has formidable computing power and is connected to the cloud, which has vast amounts more. Together, the entire system can be easily managed without any computers on board at all.

Similarly, much of the internal decor in cars is there to make it look pretty, offer interfaces, information or displays for passenger entertainment. All of that could easily be done by any half-decent augmented reality visor.

Then look at the power supply and engines. We should at the very least expect electric motors to replace fossil fuel engines. Most self-driving cars have expensive batteries, using scarce resources, and lithium batteries may catch fire or explode. So some systems in R&D now use the idea of super-capacitors instead. Furthermore, these could be recharged periodically as they drive over special mats on the road surface, so they could be smaller, lighter and cheaper. Even that is now being trialed. So these systems would already be better in almost every way to today’s transport.

However, we don’t even need the electric motors and super-capacitors. Instead we could update the ancient but well-proven idea of the linear induction motor and make factory-produced mats containing circuits that can be instructed to make steerable magnetic wells that pull the cars along, as well as navigate them correctly at every junction. Again, the management can all be done by the cloud plus smartphones, and the circuits can reconfigure on command as each pod passes over them. So they won’t need batteries, or super-capacitor banks, or engines or motors. They would just be pulled along by magnetic fields, with no moving parts (apart from the pods as a whole of course) to go wrong, and almost nothing needing expensive maintenance. Apart from wheels, suspension and brakes.

So the driverless pod would not need a built-in computer, it would not need an engine or motor, and not need a battery or super-capacitor. Already it would be vastly cheaper.

The last remaining moving parts can also be dispensed with. If the pod rides above a mat that can generate the magnetic fields to drag it along, why not let other magnetic fields suspend it above the ground? That would mean it doesn’t need suspension, or wheels. Conventional brakes could be dispensed with using a combination of magnetic fields for normal braking,  combined with a fallback of gravity and brake strips for emergency braking. Reducing the levitation field would create friction with the road surface and stop the vehicle very quickly, far more quickly than a conventional car can stop, only really limited by comfort limitations.

So my proposal is a system that would look and behave very similar to what Next have designed, but would not need engines, batteries, on-board computers or even wheels. My pods would be no more than simple boxes with comfy seats (or empty for freight transport) and a couple of strips on the bottom and might cost no more than $200 each. The road would have a factory-made mat laid on top for the magnetic well trains and levitation. Adapting a road to the system would be an overnight laying out of the mat and plugging it in to the electricity supply. In cold seasons, that electricity supply could also power on-board heating (but that would incur extra expense of course)


transport system

It won’t be long before such a system could be built. I can’t see any fundamental barriers to a prototype appearing next year if some entrepreneur were to try. It could make self driving car systems, even Next’s current proposals, redundant before they are implemented. If we were to change the direction of current plans to utilize the latest technology, rather than using ideas from 30 years ago, we could have a cheaper, better, more environmentally friendly system even faster. We could probably build such as system in every major city for what we are going to waste on HS2. Surely that is worth a try.


The future for IT technicians

This blog accompanies the British Computer Society’s launch of RITTech, a new standard for IT technicians. For more info look at: and

It is a great time to be in IT. Companies are fragmenting and reconstructing and new business models are emerging every year. Everything is becoming smart, bringing IT to pole position in the sector race. Everyone has multiple mobile devices – smart phones, tablets, readers and laptops, even smart watches and wristbands. The opportunities to add electronic control are abundant, but they all need to be developed, software written and circuits fabricated and tested. Engineers have never had more core technologies to play with to create new products and services, and they rely on technicians to make it happen.

One of the most important things for anyone in a globalised world, where potential customers or employers will often never have met you or even seen you, is to be certificated. Having a respected industry body confirm that you have reached a given level of ability makes decisions  safer. Knowing that a person has the skills required to do the job takes away the biggest risk in employing them for a project. Global companies such as Microsoft offer such certification, but so can professional bodies such as the British Computer Society. The important factor is that the body is known, respected and their certification trusted.

Trust is absolutely key in a networked world. Anyone can pretend to be anyone, and can act across borders via the net from anywhere. Dangers lurk everywhere. People need to know they can trust appliances they use, the websites they visit. They need to be confident that their details will not end up in the hands of criminals, especially anything related to their finances. They also need to be confident that code won’t crash their machines or leave them open to hackers. Few people have the ability to look after all the IT themselves, so they rely on others to make it safe for them. They trust a corporate brand, so they trust their website, so that means that company has to be able to trust those who write it and maintain it to be able to do their work competently and reliably.

That is all getting more and more difficult in a miniaturizing world. The internet of things is already bringing us into the early stages of digital jewellery. From there, it is only a small step further before IT devices will often be dust sized, well below a millimetre, and then they could easily fit through the holes in an office machine, or sit on keys on a keyboard. Add that to security holes in a smart light bulb that nobody thought of as a security risk, but which opens a back door into a home LAN, and it becomes obvious just how tricky it will be to make things secure.

Security will remain a background problem no matter what is being built, but that doesn’t take away the excitement of making something new. Every wave of new core technology opens up new doors to new gadgets or network capability. Artificial intelligence also adds capability in parallel. A huge gap has opened over recent years between what has become possible and what has been done. There just aren’t enough engineers and technicians to do everything. That means it has never been easier to invent things, to find something exciting that nobody has done yet. That next big thing could be invented by you.

You might think it won’t be because your boss has you working on another project, but new tech opens up potential in every area. There is probably something right next to your project waiting to be discovered or developed. Showing creativity or innovative capability will fast track you to your next promotion and when your colleagues learn you have done something special, you will feel the warm glow of recognition too. Few things feel better than peer recognition. Nobody is too junior to come up with a new idea, or a new way of looking at something, or spotting a feature that would increase customer satisfaction without increasing cost. Some of my best ideas have happened in areas I have just started work in. If you’re new, you might not have all the finely honed skills of someone who’s been working in it for years, but you also don’t have their prejudices, you don’t know why you can’t do something, so you just do it anyway. The barriers they thought they knew about may have been rendered irrelevant by technology progress but their prejudice hasn’t kept up with change. You might be surprised how often that is the case.

In short, as a technician going for certification, you are laying down a solid foundation for secure and fruitful employment in exciting fields. That same desire to take control, push yourself to your limits and make life work for you will also make you exactly the sort of person that is likely to do something  special. A technician is an important person already, making dreams happen, but ahead lies a career full of opportunity for further development, excitement and fulfilment.

The future of make-up

I was digging through some old 2002 powerpoint slides for an article on active skin and stumbled across probably the worst illustration I have ever done, though in my defense, I was documenting a great many ideas that day and spent only a few minutes on it:

smart makeup

If a woman ever looks like this, and isn’t impersonating a bald Frenchman, she has more problems to worry about than her make-up. The pic does however manage to convey the basic principle, and that’s all that is needed for a technical description. The idea is that her face can be electronically demarked into various makeup regions and the makeup on those regions can therefore adopt the appropriate colour for that region. In the pic ‘nanosomes’ wasn’t a serious name, but a sarcastic take on the cosmetics industry which loves to take scientific sounding words and invent new ones that make their products sound much more high tech than they actually are. Nanotech could certainly play a role, but since the eye can’t discern features smaller than 0.1mm, it isn’t essential. This is no longer just an idea, companies are now working on development of smart makeup, and we already have prototype electronic tattoos, one of the layers I used for my active skin but again based on an earlier vision.

The original idea didn’t use electronics, but simply used self-organisation tech I’d designed in 1993 on an electronic DNA project. Either way would work, but the makeup would be different for each.

The electronic layer, if required, would most likely be printed onto the skin at a beauty salon, would be totally painless, last weeks and could take only a few minutes to print. It extends IoT to the face.

Both mechanisms could use makeup containing flat plates that create colour by diffraction the same way the scales on a butterfly does. That would make an excellent colour pallet. Beetles produce colour a different way and that would work too. Or we could copy squids or cuttlefish. Nature has given us many excellent start points for biomimetics, and indeed the self-organisation principles were stolen from nature too. Nature used hormone gradients to help your cells differentiate when you were an embryo. If nature can arrange the rich microscopic detail of every part of your face, then similar techniques can certainly work for a simple surface layer of make-up. Having the electronic underlay makes self organisation easier but it isn’t essential. There are many ways to implement self organisation in makeup and only some of them require any electronics at all, and some of those would use electronic particles embedded in the make-up rather than an underlay.

An electronic underlay can be useful to provide the energy for a transition too, and that allows the makeup to change colour on command. That means in principle that a woman could slap the makeup all over her face and touch a button on her digital mirror (which might simply be a tablet or smart phone) and the make-up would instantly change to be like the picture she selected. With suitable power availability, the make-up could be a full refresh rate video display, and we might see teenagers walking future streets wearing kaleidoscopic make-up that shows garish cartoon video expressions and animates their emoticons. More mature women might choose different appearances for different situations and they could be selected manually via an app or gesture or automatically by predetermined location settings.

Obviously, make-up is mostly used on the face, but once it becomes the basis of a smear-on computer display, it could be used on any part of the body as a full touch sensitive display area, e.g. the forearm.

Although some men already wear makeup, many more might use smart make-up as its techie nature makes it more acceptable.

An ultra-cheap future transport system.

transport system

Some of my followers might remember this idea I invented way back in 2005, and have blogged a few times since, such as in


The idea is simple enough: use a linear induction motor built into a rubber mat laid out on a bike lane to drag a metal plate attached to the bike front forks. The bike moves faster with less effort (though you can still put in as much effort as you want), and you get to the office less sweaty. Since your bike goes fast, the cars won’t need to endanger you by overtaking in unsuitable locations. The mat is laid out overnight and plugged into a nearby lamp post for electric supply. This was much more nicely illustrated by a proper illustrator in a report I just did with Hewden, the equipment hire firm:


I’ve since thought about using the same idea for the larger transport pods, which we imagined as self-driving vehicles in the report and picture.  There is no reason at all why a scaled-up version couldn’t be added to them too (just imagine them with a plate underneath to drag them along), then you don’t need the engine and once you go down that path of thinking, lots of other things start falling out. Read on.

Important note: no endorsement of any of this content by Hewden or any other company is implied. If you don’t like any of what follows, blame me and Futurizon Limited.

I think we may be about to see the biggest disruption of any industry. The transport industry is ripe for three waves of disruption. It knows all about the first two but seems to have totally missed the third, and yet it could be just a few years away. Every part of the industry will be strongly affected and some of it will be wiped out – whether it’s vehicle manufacture, servicing, fuel, spare parts, tires, brakes, or driving, it will change beyond recognition.

In the first wave, the internal combustion engine is starting slowly to give way to hybrids and all-electric vehicles, with talk of fuel cells, hydrogen, super-capacitors and so on. This wave is very well known and already well absorbed into every industry strategy. This week I helped promote the ‘go ultra low’ campaign. I am all in favor of using electricity instead of burning fuels wherever economically feasible, especially in city areas, even if the electricity comes from fossil fuel power stations. People should breathe clean air, not air full of exhaust gases and particulates.

The second and related wave is the push towards self-driving vehicles. Again, everyone that needs to probably already knows all they need to about it. They certainly have no excuse if it affects them and it still manages to catch them by surprise. Cars driven by AI coupled to sensors monitoring everything around the car can react in microseconds and talk to each other, so they can drive very close front and back and side by side so roads can hold 5-15 times more cars, all driving at a good speed. They can interleave automatically at junctions without even needing to slow down significantly instead of being stuck behind someone who is waiting for an invitation in triplicate to arrive signed by the Queen before they proceed. Self driving cars would not eliminate congestion, but they would very greatly reduce it, almost eliminate accidents, save pollution and resources and be far more socially inclusive than buses or trains. They have great potential to improve our lives in many ways, but obviously would make a lot of drivers redundant. They would also shift power from conventional car manufacturers to IT companies who are best placed to develop the intelligence and control systems. No surprises there at all, we read this stuff every day now.

However, we don’t even need self-driving cars. They are barely out of the lab, lawyers are still arguing over how insurance and liability for accidents should work, and already their end is in sight. Self-driving cars could be the next Betamax.

The third wave is driverless vehicles that don’t even need an engine, or batteries, or even supercapacitors, or the huge expenses for all the sensor equipment and onboard computers and all the other electronics. They don’t need much in the way of electronics or electrics at all. We might have the first buses in history that are simpler than a bus shelter.

This 3rd wave won’t even be electric vehicles!

Forgive my use of powerpoint graphics, but with generic vehicles, boxes make a good start point anyway, vehicle designers can design them any which way they like:


This wave will reduce the vehicle to little more than a moving box. It might have comfy seats and air conditioning added, but apart from that, it doesn’t need much else. Really it doesn’t. They could have wheels, and that would reduce electricity requirements somewhat, but then wheels would cost more and bring other issues, so they will be optional and we all know future cars are meant to hover anyway. If they do have wheels, they would still use the plates near the road surface just as the non-wheel versions. There is no need for brakes on the wheels if there is a long braking pad on the road surface for emergencies. One of my first ever engineering jobs was designing an electromagnetic braking system that pulled a brake pad onto another using magnetic field. If it worked in 1982, it will work in 2020.

The most basic version of such a vehicle would be literally an empty box with three pads on the base. It would be used for carrying goods. Two of the pads would levitate the vehicle, propel it, steer it and stop it. The third pad would be a high friction pad that would stop the vehicle very rapidly if necessary. That’s it. This kind of vehicle would only cost whatever it costs to make a thin plastic or carbon fiber box and stick two thin strips of metal on the base and a strip of brake pad. $200 is a reasonable estimate. For people transport, cost depends on the level of comfort needed. It won’t crash, so a minimum requirement is a plastic seat and a safety belt to stop you falling off, shaped to sit on the pads underneath and nest easily into the one in front for storage. Again, that could easily be mass-produced for $200.


Higher comfort versions could be made of course, where the passengers are fully enclosed, sound insulated and air conditioned, sitting on nice comfy leather seats on nice soft suspension. Even then, they still don’t need any engine or battery, or any electrics other than lighting, sound cancellation and air conditioning system. But there is nothing to stop car manufacturers continuing to make high luxury cabins if they want, there just might not be much of a market for them.

Lots of the electronics in modern cars is not really needed. We already have enough computing capability in our mobiles to do all our entertainment, navigation, location, comms between vehicles, all the IoT management. Your phone knows where it is, can get you all the media and comms you can eat, and can do the noise cancellation too. Decor is irrelevant once we have augmented reality – you can sit in a blank box and make it look as if you are in any place or any vehicle you want.

Propulsion doesn’t have to come from an engine, not even an electric motor. Decades ago the first linear induction transport system was built and now there are lots of trains using that mechanism, some travelling at very high speed. However, technology has moved on. We don’t need a huge rail for our boxes to sit on. It’s easy to suspend the box on strong magnetic fields and those fields can be produced and shaped easily, especially using graphene or superconductive materials, but perfectly adequately using conventional materials and strong permanent magnets. Position the plates on the base of the box in nicely shaped magnetic wells and they will stay there. The magnetic wells can be shaped as the vehicle goes along to direct it any way it needs to go. The passenger’s mobile knows where the passenger wants to go and can talk direct to the cloud based management system, which can control invisible ‘points’ in an invisible re-configurable ‘railway’ beneath the vehicle. If there is no passenger and only freight on board, the management system still knows what to do with each box and can navigate it correctly. So it is a travelling magnetic well drive. Steering the wells steers the cars or pods. It doesn’t have to use classic linear induction motors, it just needs to be able to move magnetic wells. Linear induction motors are one way of doing that, but anything that can shape a magnetic well for the pods to sit in, and make them travel along, will do. There are lots of ways to skin a cat, so they say.

A factory-produced mat can be laid out on a stretch of road overnight, plugged in to an electricity supply, and these vehicles could be carried on it the next day. Vehicles that need to slow down could have their kinetic energy recovered and transferred to others that need to accelerate. Total energy costs would be low.

All the benefits of self-driving cars would still hold. The vehicles can still be millimeters apart in each direction so could still reap all the congestion benefits, along with virtually zero drag. Not needing any engine, motor or battery or capacitor bank on board would greatly reduce the amount of resources needed to make a vehicle and the energy needed to propel it. Recognizing that almost all the electronics needed sits happily inside a mobile saves a lot more resources.

Grabbing a vehicle would be done by direct discussion between the mobile and city transport system. Any empty vehicle would simply pull over, you get in and get off at your destination. Cost could be low enough to absorb into normal city running costs. If vehicles are designed to nest into each other like supermarket trolleys, and if they really only cost about the same, they would require minimal storage space, liberating car parks and taxi ranks for other uses.

So our vehicles really could be just simple boxes with minimal additions for basic comfort or high luxury. On nice days, they could be open, on rainy days, you pull the hood over. In colder climes, there might be sides and doors.

Here’s a quick summary of the key points:


Internet-of-things is enabling the systems needed to track obstacles such as pedestrians, linking to ubiquitous sensors and cameras, so all the safety side is entirely feasible too without having to put it in the vehicle. Our mobiles and digital jewellery will work with lots of different kinds of security systems to ensure that pods don’t go anywhere without knowing who is or what is on board, preventing terrorists from filling them up with explosives and sending them to a target. Delivery pods would only open when properly authorised. Suspicious passengers or vehicles could be locked and routed automatically to safe inspection points.

I’m not going to build this, but someone will. If it’s you, buy me a beer when you get rich and make a donation to a homeless people’s charity. No new physics is required. As graphene becomes commercially available cheaply, as it will, it will become very cheap to put all the circuitry into cheap mats that can be laid out to do the work. Thieves won’t steal mats that only have carbon in them, whereas if they use lots of copper wiring, they might try. But understand that there is absolutely nothing to prevent someone starting development tomorrow and implementing this within a few years. This should be easier to build than self driving cars.

Reconfigurable circuits have been with us decades too, so rearranging the circuits to route each pod the right way at each junction is no problem. Electronic control systems too. A few bits of software need to be written, but then a simple box achieves exactly the same functionality as a self-driving car 100 times the cost.

So basically, conventional vehicles can be replaced by simpler and cheaper boxes. No engine, no fuel, no wheels, no suspension, no mechanical parts other than optional doors and sliding roofs, just comfy seats and life support systems. Almost all the frills via augmented reality and whatever else your future smartphones do. All the system management and control and data collection ditto.

In new cities, roads could be built with such a system in mind, with less street furniture and clutter. They would have clean air. Cheap and fast transport would encourage people to travel more, socialize more, live more, be happier. Cultural life would improve. Retrofitting it to existing cities would be easy too, just laying out factory-produced mats and plugging them into electric supply. With such ultra low costs, it would be the obvious choice for developing countries, helping to reduce CO2 production and demands on resources.

Lots of industries would be affected. We won’t need as much lithium of course, since these vehicles need no batteries. We won’t need as much steel, or aluminium, and we can recycle plastic to make the bodies and seats.

All the benefits of a self-driving car system at a tiny fraction of the price. What’s not to like?

Why Uber will soon be history due to a category error

I have nothing against Uber, I’ve never used them, or Hailo, but they are just as dispensable as their drivers. My next blog will be about my vision for an all-electric zero-emission driverless transport system and it has no use for Uber.

However, before I write that, I have a small issue to clear up. A couple of weeks ago I tweeted that the London cabbies who were protesting against Uber are very proud of spending years to learn the best way to get from A to B, yet a satnav device can calculate the best route in a few seconds (and though my tweet didn’t even go that far, any half-decent satnav will also take full account of the real-time traffic and congestion situation). A straightforward fact you might think, but a great many taxi drivers took offence at it, and not just in London. One taxi firm near Boston, even made a crude and ineffective attempt at a cyber-attack. Don’t give up the day job guys!

A future transport system using driverless cars doesn’t need drivers of course but that doesn’t mean that all of them will be out of a job. Carrying luggage, helping people with mobility problems and providing company and conversation on the way is a very valuable service too, as are provision of local tourist advice, general information, strongly held opinions on every possible topic and other personality-based charms. We won’t NEED taxi drivers, but I for one would really miss them.

Uber thinks they are well on top of the driverless car trend:

Perhaps it is just as well they want to go driverless because I’m told many of their drivers are starting to get angry with Uber too. Uber is wrong if they think driverless cars will make them the future. Possibly they will benefit for a short while during technology transition, but the simple fact is that future transport systems don’t need Uber or Hailo any more than they need taxi drivers. Since Uber pays very little tax on their large revenues, they are also putting themselves on the wrong side of public opinion, and that is not a very clever thing to do at all: Their worst error though is that their vision of future transport technology is focused on the current state of the art, not the future. If you are planning a future strategy, you absolutely should not base it on today’s technology.

They say they will buy all of Tesla’s output of self-driving cars: Well, I hope they can make them pay fast, because they will be obsolete very soon indeed. Uber won’t survive long, not if they make this kind of error. Technology will soon make Uber irrelevant too, and unless they improve their corporate values, not many will bother to turn up at their funeral unless it is to gloat.

Google will presumably also want their self-driving cars out there too. The rest of the car industry also won’t go down without a fight, so there will be a many a battle to establish market share in self-driving cars. Apple will want all their self-driving cars out there too. Until 5 minutes ago, I thought there was just the tiniest possibility that Apple were going to be a bit smarter. Maybe Apple had noticed the same thing I had. But no, a quick Google search confirms that Apple have made the same mistake too, and just bought in the wrong guy: These companies have other businesses so won’t really care much if one project goes down. Google, Apple, Samsung, LG et al will be far more likely to flourish in the real future than Uber or Hailo.

The error is very serious. You’ve made it, I’ve made it. The entire auto industry has made it. It’s a category error.

We’ve all been conflating ‘driverless’ and ‘self-driving’. They are not the same.

The future doesn’t need self-driving cars, it needs driverless cars. They both save lives, save the environment, save resources, save congestion, save time, and save cost. One saves a little, the other saves a LOT.

The entire car industry, as well as Uber, Google, Tesla, and even Apple have all bet on the wrong one, but some have better chance of surviving the consequences their errors than others. I’ll outline the basic principles of the technology waves that can wipe out self-driving cars in my next blog, and actually since the technology is easier in many ways than getting self-driving working, it could even bypass them. We may never see an age of self-driving cars. We can get a far better system, far faster and far cheaper.

It is time to consider any investments you have in the transport industry. Severe turbulence ahead!

How nigh is the end?

“We’re doomed!” is a frequently recited observation. It is great fun predicting the end of the world and almost as much fun reading about it or watching documentaries telling us we’re doomed. So… just how doomed are we? Initial estimate: Maybe a bit doomed. Read on.

My 2012 blog addressed some of the possibilities for extinction-level events possibly affecting us. I recently watched a Top 10 list of threats to our existence on TV and it was similar to most you’d read, with the same errors and omissions – nuclear war, global virus pandemic, terminator scenarios, solar storms, comet or asteroid strikes, alien invasions, zombie viruses, that sort of thing. I’d agree that nuclear war is still the biggest threat, so number 1, and a global pandemic of a highly infectious and lethal virus should still be number 2. I don’t even need to explain either of those, we all know why they are in 1st and 2nd place.

The TV list included a couple that shouldn’t be in there.

One inclusion was an mega-eruption of Yellowstone or another super-volcano. A full-sized Yellowstone mega-eruption would probably kill millions of people and destroy much of civilization across a large chunk of North America, but some of us don’t actually live in North America and quite a few might well survive pretty well, so although it would be quite annoying for Americans, it is hardly a TEOTWAWKI threat. It would have big effects elsewhere, just not extinction-level ones. For most of the world it would only cause short-term disruptions, such as economic turbulence, at worst it would start a few wars here and there as regions compete for control in the new world order.

Number 3 on their list was climate change, which is an annoyingly wrong, albeit a popularly held inclusion. The only climate change mechanism proposed for catastrophe is global warming, and the reason it’s called climate change now is because global warming stopped in 1998 and still hasn’t resumed 17 years and 9 months later, so that term has become too embarrassing for doom mongers to use. CO2 is a warming agent and emissions should be treated with reasonable caution, but the net warming contribution of all the various feedbacks adds up to far less than originally predicted and the climate models have almost all proven far too pessimistic. Any warming expected this century is very likely to be offset by reduction in solar activity and if and when it resumes towards the end of the century, we will long since have migrated to non-carbon energy sources, so there really isn’t a longer term problem to worry about. With warming by 2100 pretty insignificant, and less than half a metre sea level rise, I certainly don’t think climate change deserves to be on any list of threats of any consequence in the next century.

The top 10 list missed two out by including climate change and Yellowstone, and my first replacement candidate for consideration might be the grey goo scenario. The grey goo scenario is that self-replicating nanobots manage to convert everything including us into a grey goo.  Take away the silly images of tiny little metal robots cutting things up atom by atom and the laughable presentation of this vanishes. Replace those little bots with bacteria that include electronics, and are linked across their own cloud to their own hive AI that redesigns their DNA to allow them to survive in any niche they find by treating the things there as food. When existing bacteria find a niche they can’t exploit, the next generation adapts to it. That self-evolving smart bacteria scenario is rather more feasible, and still results in bacteria that can conquer any ecosystem they find. We would find ourselves unable to fight back and could be wiped out. This isn’t very likely, but it is feasible, could happen by accident or design on our way to transhumanism, and might deserve a place in the top ten threats.

However, grey goo is only one of the NBIC convergence risks we have already imagined (NBIC= Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno). NBIC is a rich seam for doom-seekers. In there you’ll find smart yogurt, smart bacteria, smart viruses, beacons, smart clouds, active skin, direct brain links, zombie viruses, even switching people off. Zombie viruses featured in the top ten TV show too, but they don’t really deserve their own category and more than many other NBIC derivatives. Anyway, that’s just a quick list of deliberate end of world solutions – there will be many more I forgot to include and many I haven’t even thought of yet. Then you have to multiply the list by 3. Any of these could also happen by accident, and any could also happen via unintended consequences of lack of understanding, which is rather different from an accident but just as serious. So basically, deliberate action, accidents and stupidity are three primary routes to the end of the world via technology. So instead of just the grey goo scenario, a far bigger collective threat is NBIC generally and I’d add NBIC collectively into my top ten list, quite high up, maybe 3rd after nuclear war and global virus. AI still deserves to be a separate category of its own, and I’d put it next at 4th.

Another class of technology suitable for abuse is space tech. I once wrote about a solar wind deflector using high atmosphere reflection, and calculated it could melt a city in a few minutes. Under malicious automated control, that is capable of wiping us all out, but it doesn’t justify inclusion in the top ten. One that might is the deliberate deflection of a large asteroid to impact on us. If it makes it in at all, it would be at tenth place. It just isn’t very likely someone would do that.

One I am very tempted to include is drones. Little tiny ones, not the Predators, and not even the ones everyone seems worried about at the moment that can carry 2kg of explosives or Anthrax into the midst of football crowds. Tiny drones are far harder to shoot down, but soon we will have a lot of them around. Size-wise, think of midges or fruit flies. They could be self-organizing into swarms, managed by rogue regimes, terrorist groups, or set to auto, terminator style. They could recharge quickly by solar during short breaks, and restock their payloads from secret supplies that distribute with the swarm. They could be distributed globally using the winds and oceans, so don’t need a plane or missile delivery system that is easily intercepted. Tiny drones can’t carry much, but with nerve gas or viruses, they don’t have to. Defending against such a threat is easy if there is just one, you can swat it. If there is a small cloud of them, you could use a flamethrower. If the sky is full of them and much of the trees and the ground infested, it would be extremely hard to wipe them out. So if they are well designed to cause an extinction level threat, as MAD 2.0 perhaps, then this would be way up in the top tem too, 5th.

Solar storms could wipe out our modern way of life by killing our IT. That itself would kill many people, via riots and fights for the last cans of beans and bottles of water. The most serious solar storms could be even worse. I’ll keep them in my list, at 6th place

Global civil war could become an extinction level event, given human nature. We don’t have to go nuclear to kill a lot of people, and once society degrades to a certain level, well we’ve all watched post-apocalypse movies or played the games. The few left would still fight with each other. I wrote about the Great Western War and how it might result, see

and such a thing could easily spread globally. I’ll give this 7th place.

A large asteroid strike could happen too, or a comet. Ones capable of extinction level events shouldn’t hit for a while, because we think we know all the ones that could do that. So this goes well down the list at 8th.

Alien invasion is entirely possible and could happen at any time. We’ve been sending out radio signals for quite a while so someone out there might have decided to come see whether our place is nicer than theirs and take over. It hasn’t happened yet so it probably won’t, but then it doesn’t have to be very probably to be in the top ten. 9th will do.

High energy physics research has also been suggested as capable of wiping out our entire planet via exotic particle creation, but the smart people at CERN say it isn’t very likely. Actually, I wasn’t all that convinced or reassured and we’ve only just started messing with real physics so there is plenty of time left to increase the odds of problems. I have a spare place at number 10, so there it goes, with a totally guessed probability of physics research causing a problem every 4000 years.

My top ten list for things likely to cause human extinction, or pretty darn close:

  1. Nuclear war
  2. Highly infectious and lethal virus pandemic
  3. NBIC – deliberate, accidental or lack of foresight (includes smart bacteria, zombie viruses, mind control etc)
  4. Artificial Intelligence, including but not limited to the Terminator scenario
  5. Autonomous Micro-Drones
  6. Solar storm
  7. Global civil war
  8. Comet or asteroid strike
  9. Alien Invasion
  10. Physics research

Not finished yet though. My title was how nigh is the end, not just what might cause it. It’s hard to assign probabilities to each one but someone’s got to do it.  So, I’ll make an arbitrarily wet finger guess in a dark room wearing a blindfold with no explanation of my reasoning to reduce arguments, but hey, that’s almost certainly still more accurate than most climate models, and some people actually believe those. I’m feeling particularly cheerful today so I’ll give my most optimistic assessment.

So, with probabilities of occurrence per year:

  1. Nuclear war:  0.5%
  2. Highly infectious and lethal virus pandemic: 0.4%
  3. NBIC – deliberate, accidental or lack of foresight (includes smart bacteria, zombie viruses, mind control etc): 0.35%
  4. Artificial Intelligence, including but not limited to the Terminator scenario: 0.25%
  5. Autonomous Micro-Drones: 0.2%
  6. Solar storm: 0.1%
  7. Global civil war: 0.1%
  8. Comet or asteroid strike 0.05%
  9. Alien Invasion: 0.04%
  10. Physics research: 0.025%

I hope you agree those are all optimistic. There have been several near misses in my lifetime of number 1, so my 0.5% could have been 2% or 3% given the current state of the world. Also, 0.25% per year means you’d only expect such a thing to happen every 4 centuries so it is a very small chance indeed. However, let’s stick with them and add them up. The cumulative probability of the top ten is 2.015%. Lets add another arbitrary 0.185% for all the risks that didn’t make it into the top ten, rounding the total up to a nice neat 2.2% per year.

Some of the ones above aren’t possible quite yet, but others will vary in probability year to year, but I think that won’t change the guess overall much. If we take a 2.2% probability per year, we have an expectation value of 45.5 years for civilization life expectancy from now. Expectation date for human extinction:

2015.5 + 45.5 years= 2061,

Obviously the probability distribution extends from now to eternity, but don’t get too optimistic, because on these figures there currently is only a 15% chance of surviving past this century.

If you can think of good reasons why my figures are far too pessimistic, by all means make your own guesses, but make them honestly, with a fair and reasonable assessment of how the world looks socially, religiously, politically, the quality of our leaders, human nature etc, and then add them up. You might still be surprised how little time we have left.

I’ll revise my original outlook upwards from ‘a bit doomed’.

We’re reasonably doomed.

The future of electronic cash and value


Picture first, I’m told people like to see pics in blogs. This one is from 1998; only the title has changed since.

future electronic cash

Every once in a while I have to go to a bank. This time it was my 5th attempt to pay off a chunk of my Santander Mortgage. I didn’t know all the account details for web transfer so went to the Santander branch. Fail – they only take cash and cheques. Cash and what??? So I tried via internet banking. Entire transaction details plus security entered, THEN Fail – I exceeded what Barclays allows for their fast transfers. Tried again with smaller amount and again all details and all security. Fail again, Santander can’t receive said transfers, try CHAPS. Tried CHAPS, said it was all fine, all hunkydory. Happy bunny. Double fail. It failed due to amount exceeding limit AND told me it had succeeded when it hadn’t. I then drove 12 miles to my Barclays branch who eventually managed to do it, I think (though I haven’t checked that it worked  yet).

It is 2015. Why the hell is it so hard for two world class banks to offer a service we should have been able to take for granted 20 years ago?

Today, I got tweeted about Ripple Labs and a nice blog that quote their founder sympathising with my experience above and trying to solve it, with some success:

Ripple seems good as far as it goes, which is summarised in the blog, but do read the full original:

Basically the Ripple protocol “provides the ability for humans to confirm financial transactions without a central operator,” says Larsen. “This is major.” Bitcoin was the first technology to successfully bypass banks and other authorities as transaction validators, he points out, “but our method is much cheaper and takes only seconds rather than minutes.” And that’s just for starters. For example, “It also leverages the enormous power of banks and other financial institutions.”

The power of the value web stems from replacing archaic back-end systems with all their cumbersome delays and unnecessary costs. 

That’s great, I wish them the best of success. It is always nice to see new systems that are more efficient than the old ones, but the idea is early 1990s. Lots of IT people looked at phone billing systems and realised they managed to do for a penny what banks did for 65 pennies at the time, and telco business cases were developed to replace the banks with pretty much what Ripple tries to do. Those were never developed for a variety of reasons, both business and regulatory, but the ideas were certainly understood and developed broadly at engineer level to include not only traditional cash forms but many that didn’t exist then and still don’t. Even Ripple can only process transactions that are equivalent to money such as traditional currencies, electronic cash forms like bitcoin, sea shells or air-miles.

That much is easy, but some forms require other tokens to have value, such as personalized tokens. Some value varies according to queue lengths, time of day, who is spending it to whom. Some needs to be assignable, so you can give money that can only be used to purchase certain things, and may have a whole basket of conditions attached. Money is also only one form of value, and many forms of value are volatile, only existing at certain times and places in certain conditions for certain transactors. Aesthetic cash? Play money? IOUs? Favours?These are  all a bit like cash but not necessarily tradable or exchangeable using simple digital transaction engines because they carry emotional weighting as well as financial value. In the care economy, which is now thankfully starting to develop and is finally reaching concept critical mass, emotional value will become immensely important and it will have some tradable forms, though much will not be tradable ever. We understood all that then, but are still awaiting proper implementation. Most new startups on the web are old ideas finally being implemented and Ripple is only a very partial implementation so far.

Here is one of my early blogs from 1998, using ideas we’d developed several years earlier that were no longer commercially sensitive – you’ll observe just how much banks have under-performed against what we expected of them, and what was entirely feasible using already known technology then:

Future of Money

 Ian Pearson, BT Labs, June 98

Already, people are buying things across the internet. Mostly, they hand over a credit card number, but some transactions already use electronic cash. The transactions are secure so the cash doesn’t go astray or disappear, nor can it easily be forged. In due course, using such cash will become an everyday occurrence for us all.

Also already, electronic cash based on smart cards has been trialled and found to work well. The BT form is called Mondex, but it is only one among several. These smart cards allow owners to ‘load’ the card with small amounts of money for use in transactions where small change would normally be used, paying bus fares, buying sweets etc. The cards are equivalent to a purse. But they can and eventually will allow much more. Of course, electronic cash doesn’t have to be held on a card. It can equally well be ‘stored’ in the network. Transactions then just require secure messaging across the network. Currently, the cost of this messaging makes it uneconomic for small transactions that the cards are aimed at, but in due course, this will become the more attractive option, especially since you no longer lose your cash when you lose the card.

When cash is digitised, it loses some of the restrictions of physical cash. Imagine a child has a cash card. Her parents can give her pocket money, dinner money, clothing allowance and so on. They can all be labelled separately, so that she can’t spend all her dinner money on chocolate. Electronic shopping can of course provide the information needed to enable the cash. She may have restrictions about how much of her pocket money she may spend on various items too. There is no reason why children couldn’t implement their own economies too, swapping tokens and IOUs. Of course, in the adult world this grows up into local exchange trading systems (LETS), where people exchange tokens too, a glorified babysitting circle. But these LETS don’t have to be just local, wider circles could be set up, even globally, to allow people to exchange services or information with each other.

Electronic cash can be versatile enough to allow for negotiable cash too. Credit may be exchanged just as cash and cash may be labelled with source. For instance, we may see celebrity cash, signed by the celebrity, worth more because they have used it. Cash may be labelled as tax paid, so those donations from cards to charities could automatically expand with the recovered tax. Alternatively, VAT could be recovered at point of sale.

With these advanced facilities, it becomes obvious that the cash needs to become better woven into taxation systems, as well as auditing and accounting systems. These functions can be much more streamlined as a result, with less human administration associated with money.

When ID verification is added to the transactions, we can guarantee who it is carrying out the transaction. We can then implement personal taxation, with people paying different amounts for the same goods. This would only work for certain types of purchase – for physical goods there would otherwise be a thriving black market.

But one of the best advantages of making cash digital is the seamlessness of international purchases. Even without common official currency, the electronic cash systems will become de facto international standards. This will reduce the currency exchange tax we currently pay to the banks every time we travel to a different country, which can add up to as much as 25% for an overnight visit. This is one of the justifications often cited for European monetary union, but it is happening anyway in global e-commerce.

Future of banks

 Banks will have to change dramatically from today’s traditional institutions if they want to survive in the networked world. They are currently introducing internet banking to try to keep customers, but the move to digital electronic cash, held perhaps by the customer or an independent third party, will mean that the cash can be quite separate from the transaction agent. Cash does not need to be stored in a bank if records in secured databases anywhere can be digitally signed and authenticated. The customer may hold it on his own computer, or in a cyberspace vault elsewhere. With digital signatures and high network security, advanced software will put the customer firmly in control with access to any facility or service anywhere.

In fact, no-one need hold cash at all, or even move it around. Cash is just bits today, already electronic records. In the future, it will be an increasingly blurred entity, mixing credit, reputation, information, and simply promises into exchangeable tokens. My salary may be just a digitally signed certificate from BT yielding control of a certain amount of credit, just another signature on a long list as the credit migrates round the economy. The ‘promise to pay the bearer’ just becomes a complex series of serial promises. Nothing particularly new here, just more of what we already have. Any corporation or reputable individual may easily capture the bank’s role of keeping track of the credit. It is just one service among many that may leave the bank.

As the world becomes increasingly networked, the customer could thus retain complete control of the cash and its use, and could buy banking services on a transaction by transaction basis. For instance, I could employ one company to hold my cash securely and prevent its loss or forgery, while renting the cash out to companies that want to borrow via another company, keeping the bulk of the revenue for myself. Another company might manage my account, arrange transfers etc, and deal with the taxation, auditing etc. I could probably get these done on my personal computer, but why have a dog and bark yourself.

The key is flexibility, none of these services need be fixed any more. Banks will not compete on overall package, but on every aspect of service. Worse still (for the banks), some of their competitors will be just freeware agents. The whole of the finance industry will fragment. The banks that survive will almost by definition be very adaptable. Services will continue and be added to, but not by the rigid structures of today. Surviving banks should be able to compete for a share of the future market as well as anyone. They certainly have a head start in many of the required skills, and have the advantage of customer lethargy when it comes to changing to potentially better suppliers. Many of their customers will still value tradition and will not wish to use the better and cheaper facilities available on the network. So as always, it looks like there will be a balance.

Firstly, with large numbers of customers moving to the network for their banking services, banks must either cater for this market or become a niche operator, perhaps specialising in tradition, human service and even nostalgia. Most banks however will adapt well to network existence and will either be entirely network based, or maintain a high street presence to complement their network presence.

High Street banking

 Facilities in high street banking will echo this real world/cyberspace nature. It must be possible to access network facilities from within the banks, probably including those of competitors. The high street bank may therefore be more like shops today, selling wares from many suppliers, but with a strongly placed own brand. There is of course a niche for banks with no services of their own at all who just provide access to services from other suppliers. All they offer in addition is a convenient and pleasant place to access them, with some human assistance as appropriate.

Traditional service may sometimes be pushed as a differentiator, and human service is bound to attract many customers too. In an increasingly machine dominated world, actually having the right kind of real people may be significant value add.

But many banks will be bursting with high technology either alongside or in place of people. Video terminals to access remote services, perhaps with translation to access foreign services. Biometric identification based on iris scan, fingerprints etc may be used to authenticate smart cards, passports or other legal documents before their use, or simply a means of registering securely onto the network. High quality printers and electronic security embedding would enable banks to offer additional facilities like personal bank notes, usable as cash.

Of course, banks can compete in any financial service. Because the management of financial affairs gives them a good picture of many customer’s habits and preferences, they will be able to use this information to sell customer lists, identify market niches for new businesses, and predict the likely success of customers proposing setting up businesses.

As they try to stretch their brands into new territories, one area they may be successful is in information banking. People may use banks as the publishers of the future. Already knowledge guilds are emerging. Ultimately, any piece of information from any source can be marketed at very low publishing and distribution cost, making previously unpublishable works viable. Many people have wanted to write, but have been unable to find publishers due to the high cost of getting to market in paper. A work may be sold on the network for just pennies, and achieve market success by selling many more copies than could have been achieved by the high priced paper alternative. The success of electronic encyclopedias and the demise of Encyclopedia Britannica is evidence of this. Banks could allow people to upload information onto the net, which they would then manage the resultant financial transactions. If there aren’t very many, the maximum loss to the bank is very small. Of course, electronic cash and micropayment technology mean that the bank is not necessary, but for many, it may smooth the road.

Virtual business centres

Their exposure to the detailed financial affairs of the community put banks in a privileged position in identifying potential markets. They could therefore act as co-ordinators for virtual companies and co-operatives. Building on the knowledge guilds, they could broker the skills of their many customers to existing virtual companies and link people together to address business needs not addressed by existing companies, or where existing companies are inadequate or inefficient. In this way, short-term contractors, who may dominate the employment community, can be efficiently utilised to everyone’s gain. The employees win by getting more lucrative work, their customers get more efficient services at lower cost, and the banks laugh to themselves.

Future of the stock market

 In the next 10 years, we will probably see a factor of 1000 in computer speed and memory capacity. In parallel with hardware development, there are numerous research forays into software techniques that might yield more factors of 10 in the execution speed for programs. Tasks that used to take a second will be reduced to a millisecond. As if this impact were not enough, software will very soon be able to make logical deductions from the flood of information on the internet, not just from Reuters or Bloomberg, but from anywhere. They will be able to assess the quality and integrity of the data, correlate it with other data, run models, and infer likely other events and make buy or sell recommendations. Much dealing will still be done automatically subject to human-imposed restrictions, and the speed and quality of this dealing could far exceed current capability.

Which brings problems…

Firstly, the speed of light is fast but finite. With these huge processing speeds, computers will be able to make decisions within microseconds of receiving information. Differences in distance from the information source become increasingly important. Being just 200m closer to the Bank of England makes one microsecond difference to the time of arrival of information on interest rates, the information, insignificant to a human, but of sufficient duration for a fast computer to but or sell before competitors even receive the information. As speeds increase further over following years, the significant distance drops. This effect will cause great unfairness according to geographic proximity to important sources. There are two obvious outcomes. Either there becomes a strong premium on being closest, with rises in property values nearby to key sources, or perhaps network operators could be asked to provide guaranteed simultaneous delivery of information. This is entirely technically feasible but would need regulation, otherwise users could simply use alternative networks.

Secondly, exactly simultaneous processing will cause problems. If many requests for transactions arrive at exactly the same moment, computers or networks have to give priority in some way. This is bound to be a source of contention. Also, simultaneous events can often cause malfunctions, as was demonstrated perfectly at the launch of Big Bang. Information waves caused by such events are a network phenomenon that could potentially crash networks.

Such a delay-sensitive system may dictate network technology. Direct transmission through the air by means of radio or infrared (optical wireless) would be faster than routing signals through fibres that take a more tortuous route, especially since the speed of light in fibre is only two third that in air.

Ultimately, there is a final solution if speed of computing increases so far that transmission delay is too big a problem. The processing engines could actually be shared, with all the deals and information processing taking place in a central computer, using massive parallelism. It would be possible to construct such a machine that treated each subscribing company fairly.

An interesting future side effect of all this is that the predicted flood of people into the countryside may be averted. Even though people can work from anywhere, their computers have to be geographically very close to the information centres, i.e. the City. Automated dealing has to live in the city, human based dealing can work from anywhere. If people and machines have to work together, perhaps they must both work in the City.

Consumer dealing

 The stock exchange long since stopped being a trading floor with scraps of paper and became a distributed computer environment – it effectively moved into cyberspace. The deals still take place, but in cyberspace. There are no virtual environments yet, but the other tools such as automated buying and selling already exist. These computers are becoming smarter and exist in cyberspace every bit the same as the people. As a result, there is more automated analysis, more easy visualisation and more computer assisted dealing. People will be able to see which shares are doing well, spot trends and act on their computer’s advice at a button push. Markets will grow for tools to profit from shares, whether they be dealing software, advice services or visualisation software.

However, as we see more people buying personal access to share dealing and software to determine best buys, or even to automatically buy or sell on certain clues, we will see some very negative behaviours. Firstly, traffic will be highly correlated if personal computers can all act on the same information at the same time. We will see information waves, and also enormous swings in share prices. Most private individuals will suffer because of this, while institutions and individuals with better software will benefit. This is because prices will rise and fall simply because of the correlated activity of the automated software and not because of any real effects related to the shares themselves. Institutions may have to limit private share transactions to control this problem, but can also make a lot of money from modelling the private software and thus determining in advance what the recommendations and actions will be, capitalising enormously on the resultant share movements, and indeed even stimulating them. Of course, if this problem is generally perceived by the share dealing public, the AI software will not take off so the problem will not arise. What is more likely is that such software will sell in limited quantities, causing the effects to be significant, but not destroying the markets.

A money making scam is thus apparent. A company need only write a piece of reasonably good AI share portfolio management software for it to capture a fraction of the available market. The company writing it will of course understand how it works and what the effects of a piece of information will be (which they will receive at the same time), and thus able to predict the buying or selling activity of the subscribers. If they were then to produce another service which makes recommendations, they would have even more notice of an effect and able to directly influence prices. They would then be in the position of the top market forecasters who know their advice will be self fulfilling. This is neither insider dealing nor fraud, and of course once the software captures a significant share, the quality of its advice would be very high, decoupling share performance from the real world. Only the last people to react would lose out, paying the most, or selling at least, as the price is restored to ‘correct’ by the stock exchange, and of course even this is predictable to a point. The fastest will profit most.

The most significant factor in this is the proportion of share dealing influenced by that companies software. The problem is that software markets tend to be dominated by just two or three companies, and the nature of this type of software is that their is strong positive reinforcement for the company with the biggest influence, which could quickly lead to a virtual monopoly. Also, it really doesn’t matter whether the software is on the visualisation tools or AI side. Each can have a predictability associated with it.

It is interesting to contemplate the effects this widespread automated dealing would have of the stock market. Black Monday is unlikely to happen again as a result of computer activity within the City, but it certainly looks like prices will occasionally become decoupled from actual value, and price swings will become more significant. Of course, much money can be made on predicting the swings or getting access to the software-critical information before someone else, so we may see a need for equalised delivery services. Without equalised delivery, assuming a continuum of time, those closest to the dealing point will be able to buy or sell quicker, and since the swings could be extremely rapid, this would be very important. Dealers would have to have price information immediately, and of course the finite speed of light does not permit this. If dealing time is quantified, i.e. share prices are updated at fixed intervals, the duration of the interval becomes all important, strongly affect the nature of the market, i.e. whether everyone in that interval pays the same or the first to act gain.

Also of interest is the possibility of agents acting on behalf of many people to negotiate amongst themselves to increase the price of a company’s shares, and then sell on a pre-negotiated time or signal.

Such automated  systems would also be potentially vulnerable to false information from people or agents hoping to capitalise on their correlated behaviour.

Legal problems are also likely. If I write, and sell to a company, a piece of AI based share dealing software which learns by itself how stock market fluctuations arise, and then commits a fraud such as insider dealing (I might not have explained the law, or the law may have changed since it was written), who would be liable?

 And ultimately

 Finally, the 60s sci-fi film, The Forbin Project, considered a world where two massively powerful computers were each assigned control of competing defence systems, each side hoping to gain the edge. After a brief period of cultural exchange, mutual education and negotiation between the machines, they both decided to co-operate rather than compete, and hold all mankind at nuclear gunpoint to prevent wars. In the City of the future, similar competition between massively intelligent supercomputers in share dealing may have equally interesting consequences. Will they all just agree a fixed price and see the market stagnate instantly, or could the system result in economic chaos with massive fluctuations. Perhaps we humans can’t predict how machines much smarter than us would behave. We may just have to wait and see.

End of original blog piece



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 cleaning

I’ve been thinking a bit about cleaning for various customers over the last few years. I won’t bother this time with the various self-cleaning fabrics, the fancy new ultrasonic bubble washing machines, or ultraviolet sterilization for hospitals, even though those are all very important areas.  I won’t even focus on using your old sonic toothbrush heads in warm water with a little detergent to clean the trickier areas of your porcelain collectibles, though that does work much better than I thought it would.

I will instead introduce a new idea for the age of internet of things.

When you put your clothes into a future washing machine, it will also debug, back up, update and run all the antivirus and other security routines to sanitize the IoT stuff in them.

You might also have a box with thew same functions that you can put your portable devices or other things that can’t be washed.

The trouble with internet of things, the new name for the extremely old idea of chips in everything, is that you can put chips in everything, and there is always some reason for doing so, even if it’s only for marking it for ownership purposes. Mostly there are numerous other reasons so you might even find many chips or functions running on a single object. You can’t even keep up with all the usernames and passwords and operating system updates for the few devices you already own. Having hundreds or thousands of them will be impossible if there isn’t an easy way of electronically sanitizing them and updating them. Some can be maintained via the cloud, and you’ll have some apps for looking after some subgroups of them. But some of those devices might well be in parts of your home where the signals don’t penetrate easily. Some will only be used rarely. Some will use batteries that run down and get replaced. Others will be out of date for other reasons. Having a single central device that you can use to process them will be useful.

The washing machine will likely be networked anyway for various functions such as maintenance, energy negotiations and program downloads for special garments. It makes sense to add electronic processing for the garments too. They will be in the machine quite a long time so download speed shouldn’t be a problem, and each part of the garment comes close to a transmitter or sensor each time it is spun around.

A simple box is easy to understand and easy to use too. It might need ports to plug into but more likely wireless or optical connections would be used. The box could electromagnetically shield the device from other interference or security infiltration during processing to make sure it comes out clean and safe and malware free as well as fully updated. A common box means only having to program your preferences once too.

There would still be some devices that can’t be processed either in a box or in a washing machine. Examples such as smart paints or smart light bulbs or smart fuses would all be easier to process using networked connections, and they may well be. Some might prefer a slightly more individual approach, so pointing a mobile device at them would single them out from others in the vicinity. This sort of approach would also allow easier interrogation of the current state, diagnostics or inspection.

Whatever way internet of things goes, cleaning will take on a new and important dimension. We already do it as routine PC maintenance but removing malware and updating software will soon become a part of our whole house cleaning routine.