Category Archives: farming

Proposed Kent solar farm is green lunacy

Solar farms should be placed in desert regions that have low value for growing food, and relatively low value to nature. There are plans to install a massive solar farm in nice green Kent, where it is occasionally a little bit sunny. That strikes me as lunacy, and even some green groups agree and are campaigning against it.

http://www.kentonline.co.uk/faversham/news/proposal-for-solar-farm-site-increases-to-1-000-acres-184240/

The project is apparently being led by Hive Energy and Wirsol. I have been in contact with Tesla, who say “Tesla is not in conversations with any parties with regards to this project”.

Land is limited and we must use it sensibly

Nature often takes a battering when money is available, but a rich country should protect nature and ensure that some appropriate spaces are set aside. It is right to resist attempts to reassign such land to other purposes, especially when there area obvious alternatives. In this case, the land in question is mainly natural habitat, but other green areas are used for food production.

World population is growing, with another 3 billion mouths to feed mid-century. Agricultural technology will improve output per hectare and food trends may reduce the amount of meat consumption, but we should be able to feed everyone just fine even with 10 or 11 Billion people, but it will require good land stewardship. Prime agricultural land should be used mainly to grow crops. Some will be needed for buildings and roads of course, and we will want to have extensive nature reserves too. When we can produce more food than people need, we can return land to nature, but we should certainly not waste it by using it for solar farms when there are far better places to put them.

Using agricultural land for solar farms increases food costs by reducing food supply, hurting the world’s poorest people. This is also true of using land to grow biofuels, essentially an extraordinarily inefficient form of indirect solar power.

Secondly, the main current argument for solar power is to save CO2 emissions. If you read my blogs regularly, you’ll know I think that claims of human-related CO2-induced global warming catastrophe are greatly exaggerated, but there is some effect so we should not be complacent, and we do still need to be careful with emission levels. I’ve always been in favor of moving to solar and fusion as very long-term solutions. Fusion won’t be a big player until the 2040s. One day, solar will be cheaper than using shale gas, the most environmentally friendly fossil fuel solution with only half the CO2 output for a unit of energy compared to oil and coal, but that day is still far in the future. The more energy a panel can make, the more CO2 it saves. We only have one atmosphere, and a ton saved anywhere is a ton saved globally. It makes sense to put them in places where there is a lot of sun. Often that means deserts, which obviously have very little value for growing crops and support relatively low levels of life for the same reason. Putting a panel in a desert produces far more energy for far less environmental cost. A solar panel in the Sahara would make 5 times more energy than one in Kent, without reducing world food output at all. 

Sahara solar

Furthermore, many desert areas are home to poor people, who might welcome extra income from housing and maintaining panels for a cut of the revenue they make. Dust and sand would make maintenance a regular issue, but providing decent income for regular work for people with few other options makes good economic sense. Doing so would also help subsidize other infrastructure badly needed that might also improve local quality of life in those areas.

Finally, by providing extra income to deprived areas of the world, geo-political tensions may reduce somewhat.

All in, it makes far more sense socially, economically, politically, and environmentally to provide solar power from desert areas than from prime agricultural land or natural habitat.

 

 

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Will urbanization continue or will we soon reach peak city?

For a long time, people have been moving from countryside into cities. The conventional futurist assumption is that this trend will continue, with many mega-cities, some with mega-buildings. I’ve consulted occasionally on future buildings and future cities from a technological angle, but I’ve never really challenged the assumption that urbanization will continue. It’s always good  to challenge our assumptions occasionally, as things can change quite rapidly.

There are forces in both directions. Let’s list those that support urbanisation first.

People are gregarious. They enjoy being with other people. They enjoy eating out and having coffees with friends. They like to go shopping. They enjoy cinemas and theatre and art galleries and museums. They still have workplaces. Many people want to live close to these facilities, where public transport is available or driving times are relatively short. There are exceptions of course, but these still generally apply.

Even though many people can and do work from home sometimes, most of them still go to work, where they actually meet colleagues, and this provides much-valued social contact, and in spite of recent social trends, still provides opportunities to meet new friends and partners. Similarly, they can and do talk to friends via social media or video calls, but still enjoy getting together for real.

Increasing population produces extra pressure on the environment, and governments often try to minimize it by restricting building on green field land. Developers are strongly encouraged to build on brown field sites as far as possible.

Now the case against.

Truly Immersive Interaction

Talking on the phone, even to a tiny video image, is less emotionally rich than being there with someone. It’s fine for chats in between physical meetings of course, but the need for richer interaction still requires ‘being there’. Augmented reality will soon bring headsets that provide high quality 3D life-sized images of the person, and some virtual reality kit will even allow analogs of physical interaction via smart gloves or body suits, making social comms a bit better. Further down the road, active skin will enable direct interaction with the peripheral nervous system to produce exactly the same nerve signals as an actual hug or handshake or kiss, while active contact lenses will provide the same resolution as your retina wherever you gaze. The long term is therefore communication which has the other person effectively right there with you, fully 3D, fully rendered to the capability of your eyes, so you won’t be able to tell they aren’t. If you shake hands or hug or kiss, you’ll feel it just the same as if they were there too. You will still know they are not actually there, so it will never be quite as emotionally rich as if they were, but it can get pretty close. Close enough perhaps that it won’t really matter to most people most of the time that it’s virtual.

In the same long term, many AIs will have highly convincing personalities, some will even have genuine emotions and be fully conscious. I blogged recently on how that might happen if you don’t believe it’s possible:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2018/06/04/biomimetic-insights-for-machine-consciousness/

None of the technology required for this is far away, and I believe a large IT company could produce conscious machines with almost human-level AI within a couple of years of starting the project. It won’t happen until they do, but when one starts trying seriously to do it, it really won’t be long. That means that as well as getting rich emotional interaction from other humans via networks, we’ll also get lots from AI, either in our homes, or on the cloud, and some will be in robots in our homes too.

This adds up to a strong reduction in the need to live in a city for social reasons.

Going to cinemas, theatre, shopping etc will also all benefit from this truly immersive interaction. As well as that, activities that already take place in the home, such as gaming will also advance greatly into more emotionally and sensory intensive experiences, along with much enhanced virtual tourism and virtual world tourism, virtual clubbing & pubbing, which barely even exist yet but could become major activities in the future.

Socially inclusive self-driving cars

Some people have very little social interaction because they can’t drive and don’t live close to public transport stops. In some rural areas, buses may only pass a stop once a week. Our primitive 20th century public transport systems thus unforgivably exclude a great many people from social inclusion, even though the technology needed to solve that has existed for many years.  Leftist value systems that much prefer people who live in towns or close to frequent public transport over everyone else must take a lot of the blame for the current epidemic of loneliness. It is unreasonable to expect those value systems to be replaced by more humane and equitable ones any time soon, but thankfully self-driving cars will bypass politicians and bureaucrats and provide transport for everyone. The ‘little old lady’ who can’t walk half a mile to wait 20 minutes in freezing rain for an uncomfortable bus can instead just ask her AI to order a car and it will pick her up at her front door and take her to exactly where she wants to go, then do the same for her return home whenever she wants. Once private sector firms like Uber provide cheap self-driving cars, they will be quickly followed by other companies, and later by public transport providers. Redundant buses may finally become extinct, replaced by better socially inclusive transport, large fleets of self-driving or driverless vehicles. People will be able to live anywhere and still be involved in society. As attendance at social events improves, so they will become feasible even in small communities, so there will be less need to go into a town to find one. Even political involvement might increase. Loneliness will decline as social involvement increases, and we’ll see many other social problems decline too.

Distribution drones

We hear a lot about upcoming redundancy caused by AI, but far less about the upside. AI might mean someone is no longer needed in an office, but it also makes it easier to set up a company and run it, taking what used to be just a hobby and making it into a small business. Much of the everyday admin and logistics can be automated Many who would never describe themselves as entrepreneurs might soon be making things and selling them from home and this AI-enabled home commerce will bring in the craft society. One of the big problems is getting a product to the customer. Postal services and couriers are usually expensive and very likely to lose or damage items. Protecting objects from such damage may require much time and expense packing it. Even if objects are delivered, there may be potential fraud with no-payers. Instead of this antiquated inefficient and expensive system, drone delivery could collect an object and take it to a local customer with minimal hassle and expense. Block-chain enables smart contracts that can be created and managed by AI and can directly link delivery to payment, with fully verified interaction video if necessary. If one happens, the other happens. A customer might return a damaged object, but at least can’t keep it and deny receipt. Longer distance delivery can still use cheap drone pickup to take packages to local logistics centers in smart crates with fully block-chained g-force and location detectors that can prove exactly who damaged it and where. Drones could be of any size, and of course self-driving cars or pods can easily fill the role too if smaller autonomous drones are inappropriate.

Better 3D printing technology will help to accelerate the craft economy, making it easier to do crafts by upskilling people and filling in some of their skill gaps. Someone with visual creativity but low manual skill might benefit greatly from AI model creation and 3D printer manufacture, followed by further AI assistance in marketing, selling and distribution. 3D printing might also reduce the need to go to town to buy some things.

Less shopping in high street

This is already obvious. Online shopping will continue to become a more personalized and satisfying experience, smarter, with faster delivery and easier returns, while high street decline accelerates. Every new wave of technology makes online better, and high street stores seem unable or unwilling to compete, in spite of my wonderful ‘6s guide’:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/the-future-of-high-street-survival-the-6s-guide/

Those that are more agile still suffer decline of shopper numbers as the big stores fail to attract them so even smart stores will find it harder to survive.

Improving agriculture

Farming technology has doubled the amount of food production per hectare in the last few decades. That may happen again by mid-century. Meanwhile, the trend is towards higher vegetable and lower meat consumption. Even with an increased population, less land will be needed to grow our food. As well as reducing the need to protect green belts, that will also allow some of our countryside to be put under better environmental stewardship programs, returning much of it to managed nature. What countryside we have will be healthier and prettier, and people will be drawn to it more.

Improving social engineering

Some objections to green-field building can be reduced by making better use of available land. Large numbers of new homes are needed and they will certainly need some green field to be used, but given the factors already listed above, a larger number of smaller communities might be better approach. Amazingly, in spite of decades of dating technology proving that people can be matched up easily using AI, there is still no obvious use of similar technology to establish new communities by blending together people who are likely to form effective communities. Surely it must be feasible to advertise a new community building program that wants certain kinds of people in it – even an Australian style points system might work sometimes. Unless sociologists have done nothing for the past decades, they must surely know what types of people work well together by now? If the right people live close to each other, social involvement will be high, loneliness low, health improved, care costs minimized, the need for longer distance travel reduced and environmental impact minimized. How hard can it be?

Improving building technology such as 3D printing and robotics will allow more rapid construction, so that when people are ready and willing to move, property suited to them can be available soon.

Lifestyle changes also mean that homes don’t need to be as big. A phone today does what used to need half a living room of technology and space. With wall-hung displays and augmented reality, decor can be partly virtual, and even a 450 sq ft apartment is fine as a starter place, half as big as was needed a few decades ago, and that could be 3D printed and kitted out in a few days.

Even demographic changes favor smaller communities. As wealth increases, people have smaller families, i.e fewer kids. That means fewer years doing the school run, so less travel, less need to be in a town. Smaller schools in smaller communities can still access specialist lessons via the net.

Increasing wealth also encourages and enables people to a higher quality of life. People who used to live in a crowded city street might prefer a more peaceful and spacious existence in a more rural setting and will increasingly be able to afford to move. Short term millennial frustrations with property prices won’t last, as typical 2.5% annual growth more than doubles wealth by 2050 (though automation and its assorted consequences will impact on the distribution of that wealth).

Off-grid technology

Whereas one of the main reasons to live in urban areas was easy access to telecomms, energy and water supply and sewerage infrastructure, all of these can now be achieved off-grid. Mobile networks provide even broadband access to networks. Solar or wind provide easy energy supply. Water can be harvested out of the air even in arid areas (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-5840997/The-solar-powered-humidity-harvester-suck-drinkable-water-AIR.html) and human and pet waste can be used as biomass for energy supply too, leaving fertilizer as residue.

There are also huge reasons that people won’t want to live in cities, and they will also cause deurbansisation.

The biggest by far in the problem of epidemics. As antibiotic resistance increases, disease will be a bigger problem. We may find good antibiotics alternatives but we may not. If not, then we may see some large cities where disease runs rampant and kills hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps even millions. Many scientists have listed pandemics among their top ten threats facing humanity. Obviously, being in a large city will incur a higher risk of becoming a victim, so once one or two incidents have occurred, many people will look for options to leave cities everywhere. Linked to this is bioterrorism, where the disease is deliberate, perhaps created in a garden shed by someone who learned the craft in one of today’s bio-hacking clubs. Disease might be aimed at a particular race, gender or lifestyle group or it may simply be designed to be as contagious and lethal as possible to everyone.

I’m still not saying we won’t have lots of people living in cities. I am saying that more people will feel less need to live in cities and will instead be able to find a small community where they can be happier in the countryside. Consequently, many will move out of cities, back to more rural living in smaller, friendlier communities that improving technology makes even more effective.

Urbanization will slow down, and may well go into reverse. We may reach peak city soon.

 

 

State of the world in 2050

Some things are getting better, some worse. 2050 will be neither dystopian nor utopian. A balance of good and bad not unlike today, but with different goods and bads, and slightly better overall. More detail? Okay, for most of my followers, this will mostly collate things you may know already, but there’s no harm in a refresher Futures 101.

Health

We will have cost-effective and widespread cures or control for most cancers, heart disease, diabetes, dementia and most other killers. Quality-of-life diseases such as arthritis will also be controllable or curable. People will live longer and remain healthier for longer, with an accelerated decline at the end.

On the bad side, new diseases will exist, including mutated antibiotic-resistant versions of existing ones. There will still be occasional natural flu mutations and other viruses, and there will still be others arising from contacts between people and other animals that are more easily spread due to increased population, urbanization and better mobility. Some previously rare diseases will become big problems due to urbanization and mobility. Urbanization will be a challenge.

However, diagnostics will be faster and better, we will no longer be so reliant on antibiotics to fight back, and sterilisation techniques for hospitals will be much improved. So even with greater challenges, we will be able to cope fine most of the time with occasional headlines from epidemics.

A darker side is the increasing prospect for bio-terrorism, with man-made viruses deliberately designed to be highly lethal, very contagious and to withstand most conventional defenses, optimized for maximum and rapid spread by harnessing mobility and urbanization. With pretty good control or defense against most natural threats, this may well be the biggest cause of mass deaths in 2050. Bio-warfare is far less likely.

Utilizing other techs, these bio-terrorist viruses could be deployed by swarms of tiny drones that would be hard to spot until too late, and of course these could also be used with chemical weapons such as use of nerve gas. Another tech-based health threat is nanotechnology devices designed to invade the body, damage of destroy systems or even control the brain. It is easy to detect and shoot down macro-scale deployment weapons such as missiles or large drones but far harder to defend against tiny devices such as midge-sized drones or nanotech devices.

The overall conclusion on health is that people will mostly experience much improved lives with good health, long life and a rapid end. A relatively few (but very conspicuous) people will fall victim to terrorist attacks, made far more feasible and effective by changing technology and demographics.

Loneliness

An often-overlooked benefit of increasing longevity is the extending multi-generational family. It will be commonplace to have great grandparents and great-great grandparents. With improved health until near their end, these older people will be seen more as welcome and less as a burden. This advantage will be partly offset by increasing global mobility, so families are more likely to be geographically dispersed.

Not everyone will have close family to enjoy and to support them. Loneliness is increasing even as we get busier, fuller lives. Social inclusion depends on a number of factors, and some of those at least will improve. Public transport that depends on an elderly person walking 15 minutes to a bus stop where they have to wait ages in the rain and wind for a bus on which they are very likely to catch a disease from another passenger is really not fit for purpose. Such primitive and unsuitable systems will be replaced in the next decades by far more socially inclusive self-driving cars. Fleets of these will replace buses and taxis. They will pick people up from their homes and take them all the way to where they need to go, then take them home when needed. As well as being very low cost and very environmentally friendly, they will also have almost zero accident rates and provide fast journey times thanks to very low congestion. Best of all, they will bring easier social inclusion to everyone by removing the barriers of difficult, slow, expensive and tedious journeys. It will be far easier for a lonely person to get out and enjoy cultural activity with other people.

More intuitive social networking, coupled to augmented and virtual reality environments in which to socialize will also mean easier contact even without going anywhere. AI will be better at finding suitable companions and lovers for those who need assistance.

Even so, some people will not benefit and will remain lonely due to other factors such as poor mental health, lack of social skills, or geographic isolation. They still do not need to be alone. 2050 will also feature large numbers of robots and AIs, and although these might not be quite so valuable to some as other human contact, they will be a pretty good substitute. Although many will be functional, cheap and simply fit for purpose, those designed for companionship or home support functions will very probably look human and behave human. They will have good intellectual and emotional skills and will be able to act as a very smart executive assistant as well as domestic servant and as a personal doctor and nurse, even as a sex partner if needed.

It would be too optimistic to say we will eradicate loneliness by 2050 but we can certainly make a big dent in it.

Poverty

Technology progress will greatly increase the size of the global economy. Even with the odd recession our children will be far richer than our parents. It is reasonable to expect the total economy to be 2.5 times bigger than today’s by 2050. That just assumes an average growth of about 2.5% which I think is a reasonable estimate given that technology benefits are accelerating rather than slowing even in spite of recent recession.

While we define poverty level as a percentage of average income, we can guarantee poverty will remain even if everyone lived like royalty. If average income were a million dollars per year, 60% of that would make you rich by any sensible definition but would still qualify as poverty by the ludicrous definition based on relative income used in the UK and some other countries. At some point we need to stop calling people poor if they can afford healthy food, pay everyday bills, buy decent clothes, have a decent roof over their heads and have an occasional holiday. With the global economy improving so much and so fast, and with people having far better access to markets via networks, it will be far easier for people everywhere to earn enough to live comfortably.

In most countries, welfare will be able to provide for those who can’t easily look after themselves at a decent level. Ongoing progress of globalization of compassion that we see today will likely make a global welfare net by 2050. Everyone won’t be rich, and some won’t even be very comfortable, but I believe absolute poverty will be eliminated in most countries, and we can ensure that it will be possible for most people to live in dignity. I think the means, motive and opportunity will make that happen, but it won’t reach everyone. Some people will live under dysfunctional governments that prevent their people having access to support that would otherwise be available to them. Hopefully not many. Absolute poverty by 2050 won’t be history but it will be rare.

In most developed countries, the more generous welfare net might extend to providing a ‘citizen wage’ for everyone, and the level of that could be the same as average wage is today. No-one need be poor in 2050.

Environment

The environment will be in good shape in 2050. I have no sympathy with doom mongers who predict otherwise. As our wealth increases, we tend to look after the environment better. As technology improves, we will achieve a far higher standards of living while looking after the environment. Better mining techniques will allow more reserves to become economic, we will need less resource to do the same job better, reuse and recycling will make more use of the same material.

Short term nightmares such as China’s urban pollution levels will be history by 2050. Energy supply is one of the big contributors to pollution today, but by 2050, combinations of shale gas, nuclear energy (uranium and thorium), fusion and solar energy will make up the vast bulk of energy supply. Oil and unprocessed coal will mostly be left in the ground, though bacterial conversion of coal into gas may well be used. Oil that isn’t extracted by 2030 will be left there, too expensive compared to making the equivalent energy by other means. Conventional nuclear energy will also be on its way to being phased out due to cost. Energy from fusion will only be starting to come on stream everywhere but solar energy will be cheap to harvest and high-tech cabling will enable its easier distribution from sunny areas to where it is needed.

It isn’t too much to expect of future governments that they should be able to negotiate that energy should be grown in deserts, and food crops grown on fertile land. We should not use fertile land to place solar panels, nor should we grow crops to convert to bio-fuel when there is plenty of sunny desert of little value otherwise on which to place solar panels.

With proper stewardship of agricultural land, together with various other food production technologies such as hydroponics, vertical farms and a lot of meat production via tissue culturing, there will be more food per capita than today even with a larger global population. In fact, with a surplus of agricultural land, some might well be returned to nature.

In forests and other ecosystems, technology will also help enormously in monitoring eco-health, and technologies such as genetic modification might be used to improve viability of some specie otherwise threatened.

Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know that I don’t believe climate change is a significant problem in the 2050 time frame, or even this century. I won’t waste any more words on it here. In fact, if I have to say anything, it is that global cooling is more likely to be a problem than warming.

Food and Water

As I just mentioned in the environment section, we will likely use deserts for energy supply and fertile land for crops. Improving efficiency and density will ensure there is far more capability to produce food than we need. Many people will still eat meat, but some at least will be produced in factories using processes such as tissue culturing. Meat pastes with assorted textures can then be used to create a variety of forms of processed meats. That might even happen in home kitchens using 3D printer technology.

Water supply has often been predicted by futurists as a cause of future wars, but I disagree. I think that progress in desalination is likely to be very rapid now, especially with new materials such as graphene likely to come on stream in bulk.  With easy and cheap desalination, water supply should be adequate everywhere and although there may be arguments over rivers I don’t think the pressures are sufficient by themselves to cause wars.

Privacy and Freedom

In 2016, we’re seeing privacy fighting a losing battle for survival. Government increases surveillance ubiquitously and demands more and more access to data on every aspect of our lives, followed by greater control. It invariably cites the desire to control crime and terrorism as the excuse and as they both increase, that excuse will be used until we have very little privacy left. Advancing technology means that by 2050, it will be fully possible to implement thought police to check what we are thinking, planning, desiring and make sure it conforms to what the authorities have decided is appropriate. Even the supposed servant robots that live with us and the AIs in our machines will keep official watch on us and be obliged to report any misdemeanors. Back doors for the authorities will be in everything. Total surveillance obliterates freedom of thought and expression. If you are not free to think or do something wrong, you are not free.

Freedom is strongly linked to privacy. With laws in place and the means to police them in depth, freedom will be limited to what is permitted. Criminals will still find ways to bypass, evade, masquerade, block and destroy and it hard not to believe that criminals will be free to continue doing what they do, while law-abiding citizens will be kept under strict supervision. Criminals will be free while the rest of us live in a digital open prison.

Some say if you don’t want to do wrong, you have nothing to fear. They are deluded fools. With full access to historic electronic records going back to now or earlier, it is not only today’s laws and guidelines that you need to be compliant with but all the future paths of the random walk of political correctness. Social networks can be fiercer police than the police and we are already discovering that having done something in the distant past under different laws and in different cultures is no defense from the social networking mobs. You may be free technically to do or say something today, but if it will be remembered for ever, and it will be, you also need to check that it will probably always be praiseworthy.

I can’t counterbalance this section with any positives. I’ve side before that with all the benefits we can expect, we will end up with no privacy, no freedom and the future will be a gilded cage.

Science and the arts

Yes they do go together. Science shows us how the universe works and how to do what we want. The arts are what we want to do. Both will flourish. AI will help accelerate science across the board, with a singularity actually spread over decades. There will be human knowledge but a great deal more machine knowledge which is beyond un-enhanced human comprehension. However, we will also have the means to connect our minds to the machine world to enhance our senses and intellect, so enhanced human minds will be the norm for many people, and our top scientists and engineers will understand it. In fact, it isn’t safe to develop in any other way.

Science and technology advances will improve sports too, with exoskeletons, safe drugs, active skin training acceleration and virtual reality immersion.

The arts will also flourish. Self-actualization through the arts will make full use of AI assistance. a feeble idea enhanced by and AI assistant can become a work of art, a masterpiece. Whether it be writing or painting, music or philosophy, people will be able to do more, enjoy more, appreciate more, be more. What’s not to like?

Space

by 2050, space will be a massive business in several industries. Space tourism will include short sub-orbital trips right up to lengthy stays in space hotels, and maybe on the moon for the super-rich at least.

Meanwhile asteroid mining will be under way. Some have predicted that this will end resource problems here on Earth, but firstly, there won’t be any resource problems here on Earth, and secondly and most importantly, it will be far too expensive to bring materials back to Earth, and almost all the resources mined will be used in space, to make space stations, vehicles, energy harvesting platforms, factories and so on. Humans will be expanding into space rapidly.

Some of these factories and vehicles and platforms and stations will be used for science, some for tourism, some for military purposes. Many will be used to offer services such as monitoring, positioning, communications just as today but with greater sophistication and detail.

Space will be more militarized too. We can hope that it will not be used in actual war, but I can’t honestly predict that one way or the other.

 

Migration

If the world around you is increasingly unstable, if people are fighting, if times are very hard and government is oppressive, and if there is a land of milk and honey not far away that you can get to, where you can hope for a much better, more prosperous life, free of tyranny, where instead of being part of the third world, you can be in the rich world, then you may well choose to take the risks and traumas associated with migrating. Increasing population way ahead of increasing wealth in Africa, and a drop in the global need for oil will both increase problems in the Middle East and North Africa. Add to that vicious religious sectarian conflict and a great many people will want to migrate indeed. The pressures on Europe and America to accept several millions more migrants will be intense.

By 2050, these regions will hopefully have ended their squabbles, and some migrants will return to rebuild, but most will remain in their new homes.

Most of these migrants will not assimilate well into their new countries but will mainly form their own communities where they can have a quite separate culture, and they will apply pressure to be allowed to self-govern. A self-impose apartheid will result. It might if we are lucky gradually diffuse as religion gradually becomes less important and the western lifestyle becomes more attractive. However, there is also a reinforcing pressure, with this self-exclusion and geographic isolation resulting in fewer opportunities, less mixing with others and therefore a growing feeling of disadvantage, exclusion and victimization. Tribalism becomes reinforced and opportunities for tension increase. We already see that manifested well in  the UK and other European countries.

Meanwhile, much of the world will be prosperous, and there will be many more opportunities for young capable people to migrate and prosper elsewhere. An ageing Europe with too much power held by older people and high taxes to pay for their pensions and care might prove a discouragement to stay, whereas the new world may offer increasing prospects and lowering taxes, and Europe and the USA may therefore suffer a large brain drain.

Politics

If health care is better and cheaper thanks to new tech and becomes less of a political issue; if resources are abundantly available, and the economy is healthy and people feel wealthy enough and resource allocation and wealth distribution become less of a political issue; if the environment is healthy; if global standards of human rights, social welfare and so on are acceptable in most regions and if people are freer to migrate where they want to go; then there may be a little less for countries to fight over. There will be a little less ‘politics’ overall. Most 2050 political arguments and debates will be over social cohesion, culture, generational issues, rights and so on, not health, defence, environment, energy or industry

We know from history that that is no guarantee of peace. People disagree profoundly on a broad range of issues other than life’s basic essentials. I’ve written a few times on the increasing divide and tensions between tribes, especially between left and right. I do think there is a strong chance of civil war in Europe or the USA or both. Social media create reinforcement of views as people expose themselves only to other show think the same, and this creates and reinforces and amplifies an us and them feeling. That is the main ingredient for conflict and rather than seeing that and trying to diffuse it, instead we see left and right becoming ever more entrenched in their views. The current problems we see surrounding Islamic migration show the split extremely well. Each side demonizes the other, extreme camps are growing on both sides and the middle ground is eroding fast. Our leaders only make things worse by refusing to acknowledge and address the issues. I suggested in previous blogs that the second half of the century is when tensions between left and right might result in the Great Western War, but that might well be brought forward a decade or two by a long migration from an unstable Middle East and North Africa, which looks to worsen over the next decade. Internal tensions might build for another decade after that accompanied by a brain drain of the most valuable people, and increasing inter-generational tensions amplifying the left-right divide, with a boil-over in the 2040s. That isn’t to say we won’t see some lesser conflicts before then.

I believe the current tensions between the West, Russia and China will go through occasional ups and downs but the overall trend will be towards far greater stability. I think the chances of a global war will decrease rather than increase. That is just as well since future weapons will be far more capable of course.

So overall, the world peace background will improve markedly, but internal tensions in the West will increase markedly too. The result is that wars between countries or regions will be less likely but the likelihood of civil war in the West will be high.

Robots and AIs

I mentioned robots and AIs in passing in the loneliness section, but they will have strong roles in all areas of life. Many that are thought of simply as machines will act as servants or workers, but many will have advanced levels of AI (not necessarily on board, it could be in the cloud) and people will form emotional bonds with them. Just as important, many such AI/robots will be so advanced that they will have relationships with each other, they will have their own culture. A 21st century version of the debates on slavery is already happening today for sentient AIs even though we don’t have them yet. It is good to be prepared, but we don’t know for sure what such smart and emotional machines will want. They may not want the same as our human prejudices suggest they will, so they will need to be involved in debate and negotiation. It is almost certain that the upper levels of AIs and robots (or androids more likely) will be given some rights, to freedom from pain and abuse, ownership of their own property, a degree of freedom to roam and act of their own accord, the right to pursuit of happiness. They will also get the right to government representation. Which other rights they might get is anyone’s guess, but they will change over time mainly because AIs will evolve and change over time.

OK, I’ve rambled on long enough and I’ve addressed some of the big areas I think. I have ignored a lot more, but it’s dinner time.

A lot of things will be better, some things worse, probably a bit better overall but with the possibility of it all going badly wrong if we don’t get our act together soon. I still think people in 2050 will live in a gilded cage.

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.

Fairies will dominate space travel

The future sometimes looks ridiculous. I have occasionally written about smart yogurt and zombies and other things that sound silly but have a real place in the future. I am well used to being laughed at, ever since I invented text messaging and the active contact lens, but I am also well used to saying I told you so later. So: Fairies will play a big role in space travel, probably even dominate it. Yes, those little people with wings, and magic wands, that kind. Laugh all you like, but I am right.

To avoid misrepresentation and being accused of being away with the fairies, let’s be absolutely clear: I don’t believe fairies exist. They never have, except in fairy tales of course. Anyone who thinks they have seen one probably just has poor eyesight or an overactive imagination and maybe saw a dragonfly or was on drugs or was otherwise hallucinating, or whatever. But we will have fairies soon. In 50 or 60 years.

In the second half of this century, we will be able to link and extend our minds into the machine world so well that we will effectively have electronic immortality. You won’t have to die to benefit, you will easily do so while remaining fully alive, extending your mind into the machine world, into any enabled object. Some of those objects will be robots or androids, some might well be organic.

Think of the film Avatar, a story based on yesterday’s ideas. Real science and technology will be far more exciting. You could have an avatar like in the film, but that is just the tip of the iceberg when you consider the social networking implications once the mind-linking technology is commoditised and ubiquitous part of everyday life. There won’t be just one or two avatars used for military purposes like in the film, but millions of people doing that sort of thing all the time.

If an animal’s mind is networked, a human might be able to make some sort of link to it too, again like in Avatar, where the Navii link to their dragon-like creatures. You could have remote presence in the animal. That maybe won’t be as fulfilling as being in a human because the animal has limited functionality, but it might have some purpose. Now let’s leave Avatar behind.

You could link AI to an animal to make it comparable with humans so that your experience could be better, and the animal might have a more interesting life too. Imagine chatting to a pet cat or dog and it chatting back properly.

If your mind is networked as well as we think it could be, you could link your mind to other people’s minds, share consciousness, be a part-time Borg if you want. You could share someone else’s sensations, share their body. You could exchange bodies with someone, or rent yours out and live in the net for a while, or hire a different one. That sounds a lot of fun already. But it gets better.

In the same timeframe, we will have mastered genetics. We will be able to design new kinds of organisms with whatever properties chemistry and physics permits. We’ll have new proteins, new DNA bases, maybe some new bases that don’t use DNA. We’ll also have strong AI, conscious machines. We’ll also be able to link electronics routinely to our organic nervous systems, and we’ll also have a wide range of cybernetic implants to increase sensory capability, memory, IQ, networking and so on.

We will be able to make improved versions of the brain that work and feel pretty much the same as the original, but are far, far smaller. Using synthetic electronics instead of organic cells, signals will travel between neurons at light speed, instead of 200m/s, that’s more than a million times faster. But they won’t have to go so far, because we can also make neurons physically far smaller, hundreds of times smaller, so that’s a couple more zeros to play with. And we can use light to interconnect them, using millions of wavelengths, so they could have millions of connections instead of thousands and those connections will be a billion times faster. And the neurons will switch at terahertz speeds, not hundreds of hertz, that’s also billions of times faster. So even if we keep the same general architecture and feel as the Mk1 brain, we could make it a millimetre across and it could work billions of times faster than the original human brain. But with a lot more connectivity and sensory capability, greater memory, higher processing speed, it would actually be vastly superhuman, even as it retains broadly the same basic human nature.

And guess what? It will easily fit in a fairy.

So, around the time that space industry is really taking off, and we’re doing asteroid mining, and populating bases on Mars and Europa, and thinking of going further, and routinely designing new organisms, we will be able to make highly miniaturized people with brains vastly more capable than conventional humans. Since they are small, it will be quite easy to make them with fully functional wings, exactly the sort of advantage you want in a space ship where gravity is in short supply and you want to make full use of a 3D space. Exactly the sort of thing you want when size and mass is a big issue. Exactly the sort of thing you want when food is in short supply. A custom-designed electronic, fully networked brain is exactly the sort of thing you want when you need a custom-designed organism that can hibernate instantly. Fairies would be ideally suited to space travel. We could even design the brains with lots of circuit redundancy, so that radiation-induced faults can be error-corrected and repaired by newly designed proteins.

Wands are easy too. Linking the mind to a stick, and harnessing the millions of years of recent evolution that has taught us how to use sticks is a pretty good idea too. Waving a wand and just thinking what they want to happen at the target is all the interface a space-fairy needs.

This is a rich seam and I will explore it again some time. But for now, you get the idea.

Space-farers will mostly be space fairies.

 

 

 

 

Preventing soil erosion using waffles

Sometimes simple ideas work, and this one is pretty simple.

Soil erosion occurs when rainwater lands faster than it can drain and starts to run off, and as it does, makes streams that wash away surface soil. It is worsened in heavy rain because the higher energy of the larger raindrops, which fall faster, breaks up the soil particles and makes them easier to wash away. Having excess non-draining water and a freshly broken surface layer makes for rapid erosion.

The speed of run-off can be slowed somewhat by making furrows run diagonally to a slope instead of straight up and down. Terraces also work, locally flattening areas of a slope and adding a small earth wall to keep water on that area until it can soak in.

My tiny idea is to imprint a waffle structure into the soil surface after plowing and leveling. If you aren’t familiar with waffles, here’s a pic from wikipedia. I don’t recommend adding the strawberries.

250px-Waffles_with_Strawberries

Waffles would keep rain water within a small square and prevent the soil from washing away, at least until the waffle floods and overflows. Some wall breakage would then occur, but much more rarely than otherwise. I don’t think the waffle structure needs to be printed very deeply. Even a few millimetres of wall would make a difference. Intuitively, I imagine a typical waffle could use a 10cm grid with 1cm wide walls 5mm high, but I haven’t done any experiments to determine the optimum. At that structure, soil compression damage would be minimal and local confinement of organic materials and water would work fine.

UPDATE March 2016

A Google check now shows that this idea had already been thought of. e.g. the book ‘Lightly on the land’ by Birkby and Luchetti. Oh well, good idea anyway. I did check google before I blogged it, but nothing showed then.