Category Archives: environment

How to decide green policies

Many people in officialdom seem to love putting ticks in boxes. Apparently once all the boxes are ticked, a task can be put in the ‘mission accomplished’ cupboard and forgotten about. So watching some of the recent political debate in the run-up to our UK election, it occurred to me that there must be groups of people discussing ideas for policies and then having meetings to decide whether they tick the right boxes to be included in a manifesto. I had some amusing time thinking about how a meeting might go for the Green Party. A little preamble first.

I could write about any of the UK parties I guess. Depending on your choice of media nicknames, we have the Nasty Party, the Fruitcake Racist Party, the Pedophile Empathy Party, the Pedophile and Women Molesting Party, the National Suicide Party (though they get their acronym in the wrong order) and a few Invisible Parties. OK, I invented some of those based on recent news stories of assorted facts and allegations and make no assertion of any truth in any of them whatsoever. The Greens are trickier to nickname – ‘The Poverty and Oppression Maximization, Environmental Destruction, Economic Collapse, Anti-science, Anti-fun and General Misery Party’ is a bit of a mouthful. I like having greens around, just so long as they never win control. No matter how stupid a mistake I might ever make, I’ll always know that greens would have made a worse one.

So what would a green policy development meeting might be like? I’ll make the obvious assumption that the policies don’t all come from the Green MP. Like any party, there are local groups of people, presumably mostly green types in the wider sense of the word, who produce ideas to feed up the ladder. Many won’t even belong to any official party, but still think of themselves as green. Some will have an interest mainly in socialism, some more interested in environmentalism, most will be a blend of the two. And to be fair, most of them will be perfectly nice people who want to make the world a better place, just like the rest of us. I’ve met a lot of greens, and we do agree at least on motive even if I think they are wrong on most of their ideas of how to achieve the goals. We all want world peace and justice, a healthy environment and to solve poverty and oppression. The main difference between us is deciding how best to achieve all that.

So I’ll look at green debate generally as a source of the likely discussions, rather than any actual Green Party manifesto, even though that still looks pretty scary. To avoid litigation threats and keep my bank balance intact, I’ll state that this is only a personal imagining of what might go into such green meetings, and you can decide for yourself how much it matches up to the reality. It is possible that the actual Green Party may not actually run this way, and might not support some of the policies I discuss, which are included in this piece based on wider green debate, not the Green Party itself. Legal disclaimers in place, I’ll get on with my imagining:

Perhaps there might be some general discussion over the welcome coffee about how awful it is that some nasty capitalist types make money and there might be economic growth, how terrible it is that scientists keep discovering things and technologists keep developing them, how awful it is that people are allowed to disbelieve in a global warming catastrophe and still be allowed to roam free and how there should be a beautiful world one day where a green elite is in charge, the population has been culled down to a billion or two and everyone left has to do everything they say on pain of imprisonment or death. After coffee, the group migrates to a few nice recycled paper flip-charts to start filling them with brainstormed suggestions. Then they have to tick boxes for each suggestion to filter out the ones not dumb enough to qualify. Then make a nice summary page with the ones that get all the boxes ticked. So what boxes do they need? And I guess I ought to give a few real examples as evidence.

Environmental destruction has to be the first one. Greens must really hate the environment, since the majority of green policies damage it, but they manage to get them implemented via cunning marketing to useful idiots to persuade them that the environment will benefit. The idiots implement them thinking the environment will benefit, but it suffers.  Some quick examples:

Wind turbines are a big favorite of greens, but planted on peat bogs in Scotland, the necessary roads cause the bogs to dry out, emitting vast quantities of CO2 and destroying the peat ecosystem. Scottish wind turbines also kill eagles and other birds.

In the Far East, many bogs have been drained to grow palm oil for biofuels, another green favorite that they’ve managed to squeeze into EU law. Again, vast quantities of CO2, and again ecosystem destruction.

Forests around the world have been cut down to make room for palm oil plantations too, displacing local people, destroying an ecosystem to replace it with one to meet green fuel targets.

Still more forests have been cut down to enable new ones to be planted to cash in on  carbon offset schemes to keep corporate greens happy that they can keep flying to all those green conferences without feeling guilt. More people displaced, more destruction.

Staying with biofuels, a lot of organic waste from agriculture is converted to biofuels instead of ploughing it back into the land. Soil structure therefore deteriorates, damaging ecosystem and damaging future land quality. CO2 savings by making the bio-fuel are offset against locking the carbon up in soil organic matter so there isn’t much benefit even there, but the damage holds.

Solar farms are proliferating in the UK, often occupying prime agricultural land that really ought to be growing food for the many people in the world still suffering from malnutrition. The same solar panels could have been sent to otherwise useless desert areas in a sunny country and used to displace far more fossil fuels and save far more CO2 without reducing food production. Instead, people in many African countries have to use wood stoves favored by greens as sustainable, but which produce airborne particles that greatly reduce health. Black carbon resulting from open wood fires also contributes directly to warming.

Many of the above policy effects don’t just tick the environmental destruction box, but also the next ones poverty and oppression maximization. Increasing poverty resulted directly from increasing food prices as food was grown to be converted into bio-fuel. Bio-fuels as first implemented were a mind-numbingly stupid green policy. Very many of the world’s poorest people have been forcefully pushed out of their lands and into even deeper poverty to make space to grow bio-fuel crops. Many have starved or suffered malnutrition. Entire ecosystems have been destroyed, forests replaced, many animals pushed towards extinction by loss of habitat. More recently, even greens have realized the stupidity and these polices are slowly being fixed.

Other green policies see economic development by poor people as a bad thing because it increases their environmental footprint. The poor are therefore kept poor. Again, their poverty means they can’t use modern efficient technology to cook or keep warm, they have to chop trees to get wood to burn, removing trees damages soil integrity, helps flooding, burning them produces harmful particles and black carbon to increase warming. Furthermore, with too little money to buy proper food, some are forced to hunt or buy bushmeat, endangering animal species and helping to spread viruses between closely genetically-related animals and humans.

So a few more boxes appear. All the above polices achieved pretty much the opposite of what they presumably intended, assuming the people involved didn’t actually want to destroy the world. Maybe a counterproductive box needs to be ticked too.

Counterproductive links well to another of the green’s apparent goals, of economic collapse. They want to stop economic growth. They want to reduce obsolescence.  Obsolescence is the force that drives faster and faster progress towards devices that give us a high quality of life with a far lower environmental impact, with less resource use, lower energy use, and less pollution. If you slow obsolescence down because green dogma says it is a bad thing, all those factors worsen. The economy also suffers. The economy suffers again if energy prices are deliberately made very high by adding assorted green levies such as carbon taxes, or renewable energy subsidies.  Renewable energy subsidies encourage more oppression of people who really don’t want wind turbines nearby, causing them stress and health problems, disrupting breeding cycles of small wild animals in the areas, reducing the value of people’s homes, while making the companies that employ hem less able to compete internationally, so increasing bankruptcy, redundancy and making even more poverty. Meanwhile the rich wind farm owners are given lots of money from poor people who are forced to buy their energy and pay higher taxes for the other half of their subsidy. The poor take all the costs, the rich take all the benefits. That could be another box to tick, since it seems pretty universal in green policy So much for  policies that are meant to be socialist! Green manifesto policies would make some of these problems far worse still. Business would be strongly loaded with extra costs and admin, and the profits they can still manage to make would be confiscated to pay for the ridiculous spending plans. With a few Greens in power, damage will be limited and survivable. If they were to win control, our economy would collapse totally in a rapidly accelerating debt spiral.

Greens hate science and technology, another possible box to tick. I once chatted to one of the Green leaders (I do go to environmental events sometimes if I think I can help steer things in a more logical direction), and was told ‘the last thing we need is more science’. But it is science and technology that makes us able to live in extreme comfort today alongside a healthy environment. 100 years ago, pollution was terrible. Rivers caught fire. People died from breathing in a wide variety of pollutants. Today, we have clean water and clean air. Thanks to increasing CO2 levels – and although CO2 certainly does contribute to warming, though not as much as feared by warmist doom-mongers, it also has many positive effects – there is more global greenery today than decades ago. Plants thrive as CO2 levels increase so they are growing faster and healthier. We can grow more food and forests can recover faster from earlier green destruction.

The greens also apparently have a box that ‘prevents anyone having any fun’. Given their way, we’d be allowed no meat, our homes would all have to be dimly lit and freezing cold, we’d have to walk everywhere or wait for buses in the rain. Those buses would still burn diesel fuel, which kills thousands of people every year via inhalation of tiny particulates. When you get anywhere, you’d have to use ancient technologies that have to be fixed instead of replaced. You’d have to do stuff that doesn’t use much energy or involve eating anything nice, going anywhere nice because that would involve travel and travel is bad, except for greens, who can go to as many international conferences as they want.

So if the greens get their way, if people are dumb enough to fall for promises of infinite milk and honey for all, all paid for by taxing 3 bankers, then the world we’d live in would very quickly have a devastated environment, a devastated economy, a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to a few rich people, enormous oppression, increasing poverty, decreasing health, no fun at all. In short, with all the above boxes checked, the final summary box to get the policy into manifesto must be ‘increases general misery‘.

An interesting list of boxes to tick really. It seems that all truly green policies must:

  1. Cause environmental destruction
  2. Increase poverty and oppression
  3. Be counterproductive
  4. Push towards economic collapse
  5. Make the poor suffer all the costs while the rich (and Green elite) reap the benefits
  6. Impede further science and technology development
  7. Prevent anyone having fun
  8. Lead to general misery

This can’t be actually how they run their meetings I suppose: unless they get someone from outside with a working brain to tick the boxes, the participants would need to have some basic understanding of the actual likely consequences of their proposals and to be malign, and there is little evidence to suggest any of them do understand, and they are mostly not malign. Greens are mostly actually quite nice people, even the ones in politics, and I do really think they believe in what they are doing. Their hearts are usually in the right place, it’s just that their brains are missing or malfunctioning. All of the boxes get ticked, it’s just unintentionally.

I rest my case.

 

 

 

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.

 

A glimmer of hope in a dark world

Looking at the news, it can be easy to see only a world full of death, destruction, poverty, environmental decay, rising terrorism and crime; a world full of greed and corruption, with fanaticism, prejudice and ignorance in place of reason and knowledge; a world with barriers replacing bridges. It is especially hard to see the leaders we so badly need to get us out of the mess. We have a collection of some of the worst western leaders of my lifetime, whose main skill seems to be marketing, avoiding answering legitimate questions put to them by their electorates, and always answering different questions that present their policies in a more favorable light. A reasonable person who just watches news and current affairs programs could get rather pessimistic about our future, heading towards hell in a cart driven by an idiot.

But a reasonable person should not just watch the news and current affairs. They should also watch and read other things. When they do so, they will see cause for hope. I study the future all day, almost every day. I am not pessimistic, nor am I an idealist. I am only interested in what will actually be, not in wearing politically tinted spectacles. I can see lots of things down the road, good and bad, but I see a future that is better than today. Not a utopia, but certainly not a dystopia, and better overall. If asked, I can spin a tale of doom as good as anyone, but only by leaving out half of the facts. I often address future problems in my blogs, but I still sleep well at night, confident that my descendants will have a happy and prosperous future.

Leaders come and go. Obama will not be recorded in history as one of America’s better presidents and he has done little for the credibility of the Nobel Peace Prize. Cameron will be remembered as one of our worst PMs, up there with Brown and (perish the thought) Miliband. Our drunkard EU president Juncker won’t shine either, more likely to increase corruption and waste than to deal with it. But we’ll get better leaders. Recessions also come and go. We may see another financial collapse any time now and maybe another after that, but the long term still looks good. Even during recession, progress continues. Better materials, better science, better medical tools and better drugs, better transport, better communications and computing, better devices, batteries and energy supplies. These all continue to improve, recession or not. So when recession finally subsides, we can buy a better lifestyle with less money. All that background development then feeds into recovered industry to accelerate it well past the point where recession arrived.

It makes sense therefore to treat recessions as temporary blockages on economic development. They are unpleasant but they don’t last. When economies become healthy again, development resumes at an accelerated rate thanks to latent development potential that has accumulated during them.

If we take 2.5% growth as fairly typical during healthy times, that adds up to prosperity very quickly. 2.5% doesn’t sound much, and you barely notice a 2.5% pay rise. But over 45 years it triples the size of an economy. Check it yourself 1.025 ^ 45 = 3.038. National debts might sound big compared to today’s economies but compared to 45 or 50 years time they are much less worrying. That assumes of course that we don’t keep electing parties that want to waste money by throwing it at national treasures rather than forcing them to become more efficient.

So there is economic hope for sure. Our kids will be far wealthier than us. In the UK, they are worried about debts they accumulate at university, but by mid-career, those will be ancient history and they’ll be far better off after that.

It isn’t all about personal wealth or even national wealth. Having more resources at your disposal makes it possible to do other things. Many countries today are worried about mass migrations. Migrations happen because of wars and because of enormous wealth differences. Most of us prefer familiarity, so would only move if we have to to get a better life for ourselves or our kids. If the global economy is three times bigger in 45 years, and 9 times bigger in 90 years, is genuine poverty really something we can’t fix? Of course it isn’t. With better science and technology, a reasonable comfortable lifestyle will be possible for everyone on the planet this century. We talk of citizen wages in developed countries. Switzerland could afford one any time now. The UK could afford a citizen wage equivalent to today’s average wage within 45 years (that means two average wages coming in for a childless couple living together and even more for families), the USA a little earlier. By 2100, everyone in the world could have a citizen wage equivalent in local spending parity terms to UK average wage today. People might still migrate, but it would be for reasons other than economic need.

If people are comfortable financially, wars will reduce too. Tribal and religious conflicts will still occur, but the fights over resources will be much reduced. Commercially motivated crime also reduces when comfort is available for free.

Extremist environmental groups see economic growth as the enemy of the environment. That is because they generally hate science and technology and don’t understand how they develop. In fact, technology generally gets cleaner and less resource hungry as it develops. A 150g (6oz) mobile not only replaces a ton of early 1990s gadgets but even adds lifestyle functionality. It uses less energy and less resource and improves life. Cars are far cleaner and far more efficient and use far less resources than their predecessors. Bridges and buildings too. Future technology will do that all over again. We will grow more and better food on less land, and free up land to return to nature. We’ll help nature recover, restore and nurture ecosystems. We’ll reduce pollution. The 2100 environment will be cleaner and healthier than today’s by far, and yet most people will lead vastly improved lives, with better food, better homes, better gadgets, better transport, better health, more social and business capability, more money to play with. There will still be some bad leaders, terrorist groups, rogue states, bad corporations, criminals, social problems.

It won’t be perfect by any means. Some people will sometimes have bad times, but on balance, it will be better. Utopia is theoretically possible, but people won’t let it happen, but it will be better for most people most of the time. We shouldn’t underestimate people’s capacity to totally screw things up, but those will be short term problems. We might even have wars, but they pass.

The world often looks like a dark place right now and lots of big problems lie ahead. But ignore the doomsayers, look beyond those, and the future actually looks pretty damned good!

 

Citizen wage and why under 35s don’t need pensions

I recently blogged about the citizen wage and how under 35s in developed countries won’t need pensions. I cut and pasted it below this new pic for convenience. The pic contains the argument so you don’t need to read the text.

Economic growth makes citizen wage feasible and pensions irrelevant

Economic growth makes citizen wage feasible and pensions irrelevant

If you do want to read it as text, here is the blog cut and pasted:

I introduced my calculations for a UK citizen wage in https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/culture-tax-and-sustainable-capitalism/, and I wrote about the broader topic of changing capitalism a fair bit in my book Total Sustainability. A recent article http://t.co/lhXWFRPqhn reminded me of my thoughts on the topic and having just spoken at an International Longevity Centre event, ageing and pensions were in my mind so I joined a few dots. We won’t need pensions much longer. They would be redundant if we have a citizen wage/universal wage.

I argued that it isn’t economically feasible yet, and that only a £10k income could work today in the UK, and that isn’t enough to live on comfortably, but I also worked out that with expected economic growth, a citizen wage equal to the UK average income today (£30k) would be feasible in 45 years. That level will sooner be feasible in richer countries such as Switzerland, which has already had a referendum on it, though they decided they aren’t ready for such a change yet. Maybe in a few years they’ll vote again and accept it.

The citizen wage I’m talking about has various names around the world, such as universal income. The idea is that everyone gets it. With no restrictions, there is little running cost, unlike today’s welfare which wastes a third on admin.

Imagine if everyone got £30k each, in today’s money. You, your parents, kids, grandparents, grand-kids… Now ask why you would need to have a pension in such a system. The answer is pretty simple. You won’t.  A retired couple with £60k coming in can live pretty comfortably, with no mortgage left, and no young kids to clothe and feed. Let’s look at dates and simple arithmetic:

45 years from now is 2060, and that is when a £30k per year citizen wage will be feasible in the UK, given expected economic growth averaging around 2.5% per year. There are lots of reasons why we need it and why it is very likely to happen around then, give or take a few years – automation, AI, decline of pure capitalism, need to reduce migration pressures, to name just a few

Those due to retire in 2060 at age 70 would have been born in 1990. If you were born before that, you would either need a small pension to make up to £30k per year or just accept a lower standard of living for a few years. Anyone born in 1990 or later would be able to stop working, with no pension, and receive the citizen wage. So could anyone else stop and also receive it. That won’t cause economic collapse, since most people will welcome work that gives them a higher standard of living, but you could just not work, and just live on what today we think of as the average wage, and by then, you’ll be able to get more with it due to reducing costs via automation.

So, everyone after 2060 can choose to work or not to work, but either way they could live at least comfortably. Anyone less than 25 today does not need to worry about pensions. Anyone less than 35 really doesn’t have to worry much about them, because at worst they’ll only face a small shortfall from that comfort level and only for a few years. I’m 54, I won’t benefit from this until I am 90 or more, but my daughter will.

Summarising:

Are you under 25 and living in any developed country? Then don’t pay into a pension, you won’t need one.

Under 35, consider saving a little over your career, but only enough to last you a few years.

The future of water

 

When I started in futurology, one of the common beliefs was that future wars would be fought mainly over water supply. There are certainly some areas of the world where water-based wars could occur, but the main conflicts today are nothing to do with water at all.

Desalination used to be very expensive but new technology will reduce costs to not much more than standard fresh water sources. The discovery of graphene is a particularly important breakthrough because it allows water to go through easily but holds back impurities, even salt. Since graphene offers so many other benefits, research is proceeding enthusiastically to learn how to manufacture it in large quantities. Hot off the press today, http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/nl502399y shows that it is easily strong enough for high pressure reverse osmosis desalination. That will allow not just faster and cheaper desalination, but also cheaper and safer recycling, taking load off the system, allowing less water to go further and making it easier to get that water in the first place. Together, desalination and recycling will reduce load and improve supply sufficiently to remove the stress and potential conflicts – desalination and water purification plants will be a lot cheaper than wars. There will certainly be squabbles and political pressures applied sometimes, but I don’t see full-scale water wars as a significant threat. Technology has effectively solved this problem.

In humanitarian disasters, lack of availability of clean water is often a major problem, and many people die from diseases picked up by drinking very polluted water. http://nvireuk.wordpress.com/2012/02/14/graphene-drinking-straw/ was my own water purification idea a few years ago. (nvireuk doesn’t exist any more but the article is still visible). It isn’t designed to be an everyday replacement for a proper supply, but should work well in emergency situations.Graphene drinking straw

The absorbent material provides a smooth surface onto which to apply the graphene coating. The graphene coating filters out everything except the clean drinking water. The sponge then provides a reservoir from which to suck safe drinking water. When we get to the point that graphene can be produced cheaply and easily, this could save many lives in developing countries, in disaster zones, and even be useful to save carried weight for hikers, sailors and the military.

In the UK, we have lots of green types trying to make everyone use less water. Wasting is never a good idea, but really, we have no shortage of water here and the pressure to reduce usage is misdirected, there are plenty of real problems that need solved. We get abundant rainfall in the UK, and the only issue is cost of capture and storage against water-saving measures. It is a simple commercial trade-off, not a shortage of fresh water, most of which is allowed to go out to sea unused. There is no evidence that water companies make less profit as we save water, though they need less reservoir capacity and have lower treatment costs than otherwise, and in any case, leaks in their own system account for up to a third of the use of drinking water. The evidence is that they simply increase charges to maintain profits.

Water use for food production is likely to increase, but production will still tend to concentrate where resources are more readily available, such as prime agricultural land. Some hydroponics and vertical farms in cities will provide a small proportion of food. Meanwhile, whether there are fundamental shortages or not, better engineering will still mean lower requirements for resources than before right across industry. Where local shortages do exist, industry can simply recycle more. It is therefore hard to see any cause for concern for future water supply. There will always be local problems arising, but they can generally be solved.

In summary, there is too much panic about water in the future. We will face a lot of big problems, but water isn’t one of them.

The future of sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Ground up data is the next big data

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… I think.

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

The future of obsolescence

My regular readers will know I am not a big fan of ‘green’ policies. I want to protect the environment and green policies invariably end up damaging it. These policies normally arise by taking too simplistic a view – that all parts of the environmental system are independent of each other so each part can be addressed in isolation to improve the environment as a whole. As a systems engineer since graduation, I always look at the whole system over the whole life cycle and when you do that, you can see why green policies usually don’t work.

Tackling the problem of rapid obsolescence is one of the big errors in environmentalism. The error here is that rapid obsolescence is not necessarily  a problem. Although at first glance it may appear to cause excessive waste and unnecessary environmental damage, on deeper inspection it is very clear that it has actually driven technology through very rapid change to the point where the same function can often be realized now with less material, less energy use, less pollution and less environmental impact. As the world gets richer and more people can afford to buy more things, it is a direct result of rapid obsolescence that those things have a better environmental impact than they would if the engineering life cycle had run through fewer times.

A 150g smart-phone replaces 750kg of 1990s IT. If the green policy of making things last longer and not replacing them had been in force back then, some improvement would still have arisen, but the chances are you would not have the smart phone or tablet, would still use a plasma TV, still need a hi-fi, camera and you’d still have to travel in person to do a lot of the things your smartphone allows you to do wherever you are. In IT, rapid obsolescence continues, soon all your IT will be replaced by active contact lenses and a few grams of jewelry. If 7Bn people want to have a good quality of digitally enabled lifestyle, then letting them do so with 5 grams of materials and milliwatts of power use is far better than using a ton of materials and kilowatts of power.

Rapid engineering progress lets us build safer bridges and buildings with less material, make cars that don’t rust after 3 years and run on less fuel, given us fridges and washing machines that use less energy. Yes, we throw things away, but thanks again to rapid obsolescence, the bits are now easily recyclable.

Whether greens like it or not, our way of throwing things away after a relatively short life cycle has been one of the greatest environmental successes of our age. Fighting against rapid obsolescence doesn’t make you a friend of the earth, it makes you its unwitting enemy.

The future of bacteria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diesel – 4.4 times more deaths than by road accidents

In Dec 2010, the UK government released a report estimating that air pollution causes a ‘mortality burden’ of 340,000 years of life spread over an affected population of 200,000, equivalent to about 29,000 deaths each year in the UK, or a drop in average life expectancy across the whole population of 6 months. It also costs the NHS £27B per year. See:

http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20140505104658/http://www.comeap.org.uk/images/stories/Documents/Reports/COMEAP_Mortality_Effects_Press_Release.pdf

There is no more recent report as yet, although the figures in it refer to 2008.

Particulate matter (PM) is the worst offender and diesel engines are one of the main sources of PM, but they also emit some of the other offenders. COMEAP estimates that a quarter of PM-related deaths are caused by diesel engines, 7250 lives per year. Some of the PM comes from private vehicles. To save regeneration costs, some diesel drivers apparently remove the diesel particulate filters from their cars, which is illegal, and doing so would mean failing an MOT. See:

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/263018/diesel-particulate-filters-guidance.pdf

The government encouraged people to go diesel by offering significant tax advantages. Road tax and company car tax are lower for diesels, resulting in more than half of new cars now being diesels. (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/vehicle-licensing-statistics-2013) Almost all public buses and taxis and still many trains are diesel.

7250 lives per year caused by diesel vehicles is a lot, and let’s remember that was an estimate based on 2008 particulates. There are many more diesels on our roads now than then (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/301636/veh0203.xls shows the number of diesel cars licensed has increased from 7163 to 10,064), but fuel efficiency has also improved in that period so total fuel use hasn’t increased much, only from 8788 to 9197 thousand tons of diesel. So the result isn’t as bad as it could have been and the proportionately scaled figure for 2012 would be 7587 deaths from diesel emissions. In 2013 there were only 1730 road deaths so 4.4 times as many people were killed by diesel emissions than road accidents.

I thought it would be interesting to compare deaths from just buses to those in road accidents, since buses are thought of by many as some sort of panacea whereas some of us see them as filthy environmental monsters. The proportion of diesel used by buses has fallen from 17% to 13.7% between 2008 and 2012. (I couldn’t find figures for the numbers of taxis, also officially included in public transport, since the fuel usage stats lump all cars together, but then I’ve never understood why taxis should be listed as public transport anyway.)

17% of the 7250 figure for 2008 gives 1232 deaths from public transport diesel emissions compared to 2538 road deaths that year, roughly half as many. However, for 2012, 13.7% of 7587 is 1039 deaths from public transport diesel emissions compared to 1754 people killed in road accidents in 2012.  That ratio has grown from 48.5% to 59% in just 4 years. Buses may use less fuel than cars but they certainly aren’t saints.

So, headline result: 60% as many people are killed by diesel emissions from buses as in road accidents, but altogether, 4.4 times as many people die due to diesel. The government is very noisy when it comes to reducing road deaths, but it should look at the far bigger gains that would be made by reducing diesel use. Perhaps it is time that the deaths arising from diesel emissions should be added to the road deaths figures. At least then there might be some better action against it.

As I wrote in a recent blog

(https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/07/18/road-deaths-v-hospital-hygiene/)

more still could be saved by just slightly improving the NHS. The £27B per year health costs saved by getting rid of diesel might go some way to doing both.

As a final observation, diesel was encouraged so much because it should help to reduce CO2 emissions, seen as a major contributor to global warming. In the last year or two, the sensitivity to CO2 emissions has been observed to be lower than originally thought. However, another major contribution to warming is the black carbon PM, noted especially for its contribution to melting glaciers by making them darker, also arising in large part from diesel. The efforts to reduce one contributor have increased another. Diesel doesn’t even solve the problem it was aimed at, but still causes others.