Category Archives: Health

The Future of Games (recycled from 2005)

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

Games are getting serious

Ian Pearson, August 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




The future of holes

H already in my alphabetic series! I was going to write about happiness, or have/have nots, or hunger, or harassment, or hiding, or health. Far too many options for H. Holes is a topic I have never written about, not even a bit, whereas the others would just be updates on previous thoughts. So here goes, the future of holes.

Holes come in various shapes and sizes. At one extreme, we have great big holes from deep mining, drilling, fracking, and natural holes such as meteor craters, rifts and volcanoes. Some look nice and make good documentaries, but I have nothing to say about them.

At the other we have long thin holes in optical fibers that increase bandwidth or holes through carbon nanotubes to make them into electron pipes. And short fat ones that make nice passages through semi-permeable smart membranes.

Electron pipes are an idea I invented in 1992 to increase internet capacity by several orders of magnitude. I’ve written about them in this blog before:

Short fat holes are interesting. If you make a fabric using special polymers that can stretch when a voltage is applied across it, then round holes in it would become oval holes as long as you only stretch it in one direction.  Particles that may fit through round holes might be too thick to pass through them when they are elongated. If you can do that with a membrane on the skin surface, then you have an electronically controllable means of allowing the right mount of medication to be applied. A dispenser could hold medication and use the membrane to allow the right doses at the right time to be applied.

Long thin holes are interesting too. Hollow fiber polyester has served well as duvet and pillow filling for many years. Suppose more natural material fibers could be engineered to have holes, and those holes could be filled with chemicals that are highly distasteful to moths. As a moth larva starts to eat the fabric, it would very quickly be repelled, protecting the fabric from harm.

Conventional wisdom says when you are in a hole, stop digging. End.

Technology 2040: Technotopia denied by human nature

This is a reblog of the Business Weekly piece I wrote for their 25th anniversary.

It’s essentially a very compact overview of the enormous scope for technology progress, followed by a reality check as we start filtering that potential through very imperfect human nature and systems.

25 years is a long time in technology, a little less than a third of a lifetime. For the first third, you’re stuck having to live with primitive technology. Then in the middle third it gets a lot better. Then for the last third, you’re mainly trying to keep up and understand it, still using the stuff you learned in the middle third.

The technology we are using today is pretty much along the lines of what we expected in 1990, 25 years ago. Only a few details are different. We don’t have 2Gb/s per second to the home yet and AI is certainly taking its time to reach human level intelligence, let alone consciousness, but apart from that, we’re still on course. Technology is extremely predictable. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is just how few surprises there have been.

The next 25 years might be just as predictable. We already know some of the highlights for the coming years – virtual reality, augmented reality, 3D printing, advanced AI and conscious computers, graphene based materials, widespread Internet of Things, connections to the nervous system and the brain, more use of biometrics, active contact lenses and digital jewellery, use of the skin as an IT platform, smart materials, and that’s just IT – there will be similarly big developments in every other field too. All of these will develop much further than the primitive hints we see today, and will form much of the technology foundation for everyday life in 2040.

For me the most exciting trend will be the convergence of man and machine, as our nervous system becomes just another IT domain, our brains get enhanced by external IT and better biotech is enabled via nanotechnology, allowing IT to be incorporated into drugs and their delivery systems as well as diagnostic tools. This early stage transhumanism will occur in parallel with enhanced genetic manipulation, development of sophisticated exoskeletons and smart drugs, and highlights another major trend, which is that technology will increasingly feature in ethical debates. That will become a big issue. Sometimes the debates will be about morality, and religious battles will result. Sometimes different parts of the population or different countries will take opposing views and cultural or political battles will result. Trading one group’s interests and rights against another’s will not be easy. Tensions between left and right wing views may well become even higher than they already are today. One man’s security is another man’s oppression.

There will certainly be many fantastic benefits from improving technology. We’ll live longer, healthier lives and the steady economic growth from improving technology will make the vast majority of people financially comfortable (2.5% real growth sustained for 25 years would increase the economy by 85%). But it won’t be paradise. All those conflicts over whether we should or shouldn’t use technology in particular ways will guarantee frequent demonstrations. Misuses of tech by criminals, terrorists or ethically challenged companies will severely erode the effects of benefits. There will still be a mix of good and bad. We’ll have fixed some problems and created some new ones.

The technology change is exciting in many ways, but for me, the greatest significance is that towards the end of the next 25 years, we will reach the end of the industrial revolution and enter a new age. The industrial revolution lasted hundreds of years, during which engineers harnessed scientific breakthroughs and their own ingenuity to advance technology. Once we create AI smarter than humans, the dependence on human science and ingenuity ends. Humans begin to lose both understanding and control. Thereafter, we will only be passengers. At first, we’ll be paying passengers in a taxi, deciding the direction of travel or destination, but it won’t be long before the forces of singularity replace that taxi service with AIs deciding for themselves which routes to offer us and running many more for their own culture, on which we may not be invited. That won’t happen overnight, but it will happen quickly. By 2040, that trend may already be unstoppable.

Meanwhile, technology used by humans will demonstrate the diversity and consequences of human nature, for good and bad. We will have some choice of how to use technology, and a certain amount of individual freedom, but the big decisions will be made by sheer population numbers and statistics. Terrorists, nutters and pressure groups will harness asymmetry and vulnerabilities to cause mayhem. Tribal differences and conflicts between demographic, religious, political and other ideological groups will ensure that advancing technology will be used to increase the power of social conflict. Authorities will want to enforce and maintain control and security, so drones, biometrics, advanced sensor miniaturisation and networking will extend and magnify surveillance and greater restrictions will be imposed, while freedom and privacy will evaporate. State oppression is sadly as likely an outcome of advancing technology as any utopian dream. Increasing automation will force a redesign of capitalism. Transhumanism will begin. People will demand more control over their own and their children’s genetics, extra features for their brains and nervous systems. To prevent rebellion, authorities will have little choice but to permit leisure use of smart drugs, virtual escapism, a re-scoping of consciousness. Human nature itself will be put up for redesign.

We may not like this restricted, filtered, politically managed potential offered by future technology. It offers utopia, but only in a theoretical way. Human nature ensures that utopia will not be the actual result. That in turn means that we will need strong and wise leadership, stronger and wiser than we have seen of late to get the best without also getting the worst.

The next 25 years will be arguably the most important in human history. It will be the time when people will have to decide whether we want to live together in prosperity, nurturing and mutual respect, or to use technology to fight, oppress and exploit one another, with the inevitable restrictions and controls that would cause. Sadly, the fine engineering and scientist minds that have got us this far will gradually be taken out of that decision process.

Stimulative technology

You are sick of reading about disruptive technology, well, I am anyway. When a technology changes many areas of life and business dramatically it is often labelled disruptive technology. Disruption was the business strategy buzzword of the last decade. Great news though: the primarily disruptive phase of IT is rapidly being replaced by a more stimulative phase, where it still changes things but in a more creative way. Disruption hasn’t stopped, it’s just not going to be the headline effect. Stimulation will replace it. It isn’t just IT that is changing either, but materials and biotech too.

Stimulative technology creates new areas of business, new industries, new areas of lifestyle. It isn’t new per se. The invention of the wheel is an excellent example. It destroyed a cave industry based on log rolling, and doubtless a few cavemen had to retrain from their carrying or log-rolling careers.

I won’t waffle on for ages here, I don’t need to. The internet of things, digital jewelry, active skin, AI, neural chips, storage and processing that is physically tiny but with huge capacity, dirt cheap displays, lighting, local 3D mapping and location, 3D printing, far-reach inductive powering, virtual and augmented reality, smart drugs and delivery systems, drones, new super-materials such as graphene and molybdenene, spray-on solar … The list carries on and on. These are all developing very, very quickly now, and are all capable of stimulating entire new industries and revolutionizing lifestyle and the way we do business. They will certainly disrupt, but they will stimulate even more. Some jobs will be wiped out, but more will be created. Pretty much everything will be affected hugely, but mostly beneficially and creatively. The economy will grow faster, there will be many beneficial effects across the board, including the arts and social development as well as manufacturing industry, other commerce and politics. Overall, we will live better lives as a result.

So, you read it here first. Stimulative technology is the next disruptive technology.


The future of 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, 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. 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 virtual reality

I first covered this topic in 1991 or 1992, can’t recall, when we were playing with the Virtuality machines. I got a bit carried away, did the calculations on processing power requirements for decent images, and announced that VR would replace TV as our main entertainment by about 2000. I still use that as my best example of things I didn’t get right.

I have often considered why it didn’t take off as we expected. There are two very plausible explanations and both might apply somewhat to the new launches we’re seeing now.

1: It did happen, just differently. People are using excellent pseudo-3D environments in computer games, and that is perfectly acceptable, they simply don’t need full-blown VR. Just as 3DTV hasn’t turned out to be very popular compared to regular TV, so wandering around a virtual world doesn’t necessarily require VR. TV or  PC monitors are perfectly adequate in conjunction with the cooperative human brain to convey the important bits of the virtual world illusion.

2. Early 1990s VR headsets reportedly gave some people eye strain or psychological distortions that persisted long enough after sessions to present potential dangers. This meant corporate lawyers would have been warning about potentially vast class action suits with every kid that develops a squint blaming the headset manufacturers, or when someone walked under a bus because they were still mentally in a virtual world. If anything, people are far more likely to sue for alleged negative psychological effects now than back then.

My enthusiasm for VR hasn’t gone away. I still think it has great potential. I just hope the manufacturers are fully aware of these issues and have dealt with or are dealing with them. It would be a great shame indeed if a successful launch is followed by rapid market collapse or class action suits. I hope they can avoid both problems.

The porn industry is already gearing up to capitalise on VR, and the more innocent computer games markets too. I spend a fair bit of my spare time in the virtual worlds of computer games. I find games far more fun than TV, and adding more convincing immersion and better graphics would be a big plus. In the further future, active skin will allow our nervous systems to be connected into the IT too, recording and replaying sensations so VR could become full sensory. When you fight an enemy in a game today, the controller might vibrate if you get hit or shot. If you could feel the pain, you might try a little harder to hide. You may be less willing to walk casually through flames if they hurt rather than just making a small drop in a health indicator or you might put a little more effort into kindling romances if you could actually enjoy the cuddles. But that’s for the next generation, not mine.

VR offers a whole new depth of experience, but it did in 1991. It failed first time, let’s hope this time the technology brings the benefits without the drawbacks and can succeed.

The future of euthanasia and suicide

Another extract from You Tomorrow, one that is very much in debate at the moment, it is an area that needs wise legislation, but I don’t have much confidence that we’ll get it. I’ll highlight some of the questions here, but since I don’t have many answers, I’ll illustrate why: they are hard questions.

Sadly, some people feel the need to end their own lives and an increasing number are asking for the legal right to assisted suicide. Euthanasia is increasingly in debate now too, with some health service practices bordering on it, some would say even crossing the boundary. Suicide and euthanasia are inextricably linked, mainly because it is impossible to know for certain what is in someone’s mind, and that is the basis of the well-known slippery slope from assisted suicide to euthanasia.

The stages of progress are reasonably clear. Is the suicide request a genuine personal decision, originating from that person’s free thoughts, based solely on their own interests? Or is it a personal decision influenced by the interests of others, real or imagined? Or is it a personal decision made after pressure from friends and relatives who want the person to die peacefully rather than suffer, with the best possible interests of the person in mind? In which case, who first raised the possibility of suicide as a potential way out? Or is it a personal decision made after pressure applied because relatives want rid of the person, perhaps over-eager to inherit or wanting to end their efforts to care for them? Guilt can be a powerful force and can be applied very subtly indeed over a period of time.

If the person is losing their ability to communicate a little, perhaps a friend or relative may help interpret their wishes to a doctor. From here, it is a matter of degree of communication skill loss and gradual increase of the part relatives play in guiding the doctor’s opinion of whether the person genuinely wants to die. Eventually, the person might not be directly consulted because their relatives can persuade a doctor that they really want to die but can’t say so effectively. Not much further along the path, people make their minds up what is in the best interests of another person as far as living or dying goes. It is a smooth path between these many small steps from genuine suicide to euthanasia. And that all ignores all the impact of possible alternatives such as pain relief, welfare, special care etc. Interestingly, the health services seem to be moving down the euthanasia route far faster than the above steps would suggest, skipping some of them and going straight to the ‘doctor knows best’ step.

Once the state starts to get involved in deciding cases, even by abdicating it to doctors, it is a long but easy road to Logan’s run, where death is compulsory at a certain age, or a certain care cost, or you’ve used up your lifetime carbon credit allocation.

There are sometimes very clear cases where someone obviously able to make up their own mind has made a thoroughly thought-through decision to end their life because of ongoing pain, poor quality of life and no hope of any cure or recovery, the only prospect being worsening condition leading to an undignified death. Some people would argue with their decision to die, others would consider that they should be permitted to do so in such clear circumstances, without any fear for their friends or relatives being prosecuted.

There are rarely razor-sharp lines between cases; situations can get blurred sometimes because of the complexity of individual lives, and because judges have their own personalities and differ slightly in their judgements. There is inevitably another case slightly further down the line that seems reasonable to a particular judge in the circumstances, and once that point is passed, and accepted by the courts, other cases with slightly less-defined circumstances can use it to help argue theirs. This is the path by which most laws evolve. They start in parliament and then after implementation, case law and a gradually changing public mind-set or even the additive effects of judges’ ideologies gradually evolve them into something quite different.

It seems likely given current trends and pressures that one day, we will accept suicide, and then we may facilitate it. Then, if we are not careful, it may evolve into euthanasia by a hundred small but apparently reasonable steps, and if we don’t stop it in time, one day we might even have a system like the one in the film ‘Logan’s Run’.

 Suicide and euthanasia are certainly gradually becoming less shocking to people, and we should expect that in the far future both will become more accepted. If you doubt that society can change its attitudes quickly, it actually only takes about 30 years to get a full reversal. Think of how long it took for homosexuality to change from condemned to fashionable, or how long abortion took from being something a woman would often be condemned for to something that is now a woman’s right to choose. Each of these took only 3 decades for a full 180 degree turnaround. Attitudes to the environment switched from mad panic about a coming ice age to mad panic about global warming in just 3 decades too, and are already switching back again towards ice age panic. If the turn in attitudes to suicide started 10 years ago, then we may have about 20 years left before it is widely accepted as a basic right that is only questioned by bigots. But social change aside, the technology will make the whole are much more interesting.

As I argued earlier, the very long term (2050 and beyond) will bring technology that allows people to link their brains to the machine world, perhaps using nanotech implants connected to each synapse to relay brain activity to a high speed neural replica hosted by a computer. This will have profound implications for suicide too. When this technology has matured, it will allow people to do wonderful things such as using machine sensors as extensions to their own capabilities. They will be able to use android bodies to move around and experience distant places and activities as if they were there in person. For people who feel compelled to end it all because of disability, pain or suffering, an alternative where they could effectively upload their mind into an android might be attractive. Their quality of life could improve dramatically at least in terms of capability. We might expect that pain and suffering could be dealt with much more effectively too if we have a direct link into the brain to control the way sensations are dealt with. So if that technology does progress as I expect, then we might see a big drop in the number of people who want to die.

But the technology options don’t stop there. If a person has a highly enhanced replica of their own brain/mind, in the machine world, people will begin to ask why they need the original. The machine world could give them greater sensory ability, greater physical ability, and greater mental ability. Smarter, with better memory, more and better senses, connected to all the world’s knowledge via the net, able effectively to wander around the world at the speed of light, and being connected directly to other people’s minds when you want, and doing so without fear of ageing, ill health of pain, this would seem a very attractive lifestyle. And it will become possible this century, at low enough cost for anyone to afford.

What of suicide then? It might not seem so important to keep the original body, especially if it is worn out or defective, so even without any pain and suffering, some people might decide to dispose of their body and carry on their lives without it. Partial suicide might become possible. Aside from any religious issues, this would be a hugely significant secular ethical issue. Updating the debate today, should people be permitted to opt out of physical existence, only keeping an electronic copy of their mind, timesharing android bodies when they need to enter the physical world? Should their families and friends be able to rebuild their loved ones electronically if they die accidentally? If so, should people be able to rebuild several versions, each representing the deceased’s different life stages, or just the final version, which may have been ill or in decline?

And then the ethical questions get even trickier. If it is possible to replicate the brain’s structure and so capture the mind, will people start to build ‘restore points’, where they make a permanent record of the state of their self at a given moment? If they get older and decide they could have run their lives better, they might be able to start again from any restore point. If the person exists in cyberspace and has disposed of their physical body, what about ownership of their estate? What about working and living in cyberspace? Will people get jobs? Will they live in virtual towns like the Sims? Indeed, in the same time frame, AI will have caught up and superseded humans in ability. Maybe Sims will get bored in their virtual worlds and want to end it all by migrating to the real world. Maybe they could swap bodies with someone coming the other way?

What will the State do when it is possible to reduce costs and environmental impact by migrating people into the virtual universe? Will it then become socially and politically acceptable, even compulsory when someone reaches a given age or costs too much for health care?

So perhaps suicide has an interesting future. It might eventually decline, and then later increase again, but in many very different forms, becoming a whole range of partial suicide options. But the scariest possibility is that people may not be able to die completely. If their body is an irrelevance, and there are many restore points from which they can be recovered, friends, family, or even the state might keep them ‘alive’ as long as they are useful. And depending on the law, they might even become a form of slave labour, their minds used for information processing or creativity whether they wish it or not. It has often truly been noted that there are worse fates than death.

Road deaths v hospital hygiene and errors

Here is a slide I just made for a road safety conference. All the figures I used came from government sources. We use the argument that a life is worth any spend, and we might be able to shave 10% off road deaths if we try hard, but we’d save 30 times more if we could reduce NHS errors and improve hygiene by just 10%.

road safety v NHS

Deterring rape and sexual assault

Since writing this a new set of stats has come out (yes, I should have predicted that):–2012-13/rft-table-2.xls

New technology appears all the time, but it seemed to me that some very serious problems were being under-addressed, such as rape and sexual assault. Technology obviously won’t solve them alone, but I believe it could help to some degree. However, I wanted to understand the magnitude of the problem first, so sought out the official statistics. I found it intensely frustrating task that left me angry that government is so bad at collecting proper data. So although I started this as another technology blog, it evolved and I now also discuss the statistics too, since poor quality data collection and communication on such an important issue as rape is a huge problem in itself. That isn’t a technology issue, it is one of government competence.

Anyway, the headline stats are that:

1060 rapes of women and 522 rapes of girls under 16 resulted in court convictions. A third as many attempted rapes also resulted in convictions.

14767 reports of rapes or attempted rapes (typically 25%) of females were initially recorded by the police, of which 33% were against girls under 16.

The Crime Survey for England and Wales estimates that 69000 women claim to have been subjected to rape or attempted rape.

I will discuss the stats further after I have considered how technology could help to reduce rape, the original point of the blog.

This is a highly sensitive area, and people get very upset with any discussion of rape because of its huge emotional impact. I don’t want to upset anybody by misplacing blame so let me say very clearly:

Rape or sexual assault are never a victim’s fault. There are no circumstances under which it is acceptable to take part in any sexual act with anyone against their will. If someone does so, it is entirely their fault, not the victim’s. People should not have to protect themselves but should be free to do as they wish without fear of being raped or sexually assaulted. Some people clearly don’t respect that right and rapes and sexual assaults happen. The rest of us want fewer people to be raped or assaulted and want more guilty people to be convicted. Technology can’t stop rape, and I won’t suggest that it can, but if it can help reduce someone’s chances of becoming a victim or help convict a culprit, even in just some cases, that’s progress.  I just want to do my bit to help as an engineer. Please don’t just think up reasons why a particular solution is no use in a particular case, think instead how it might help in a few. There are lots of rapes and assaults where nothing I suggest will be of any help at all. Technology can only ever be a small part of our fight against sex crime.

Let’s start with something we could easily do tomorrow, using social networking technology to alert potential victims to some dangers, deter stranger rape or help catch culprits. People encounter strangers all the time – at work, on transport, in clubs, pubs, coffee bars, shops, as well as dark alleys and tow-paths. In many of these places, we expect IT infrastructure, communications, cameras, and people with smartphones. 

Social networks often use location and some apps know who some of the people near you are. Shops are starting to use face recognition to identify regular customers and known troublemakers. Videos from building cameras are already often used to try to identify potential suspects or track their movements. Suppose in the not-very-far future, a critical mass of people carried devices that recorded the data of who was near them, throughout the day, and sent it regularly into the cloud. That device could be a special purpose device or it could just be a smartphone with an app on it. Suppose a potential victim in a club has one. They might be able to glance at an app and see a social reputation for many of the people there. They’d see that some are universally considered to be fine upstanding members of the community, even by previous partners, who thought they were nice people, just not right for them. They might see that a few others have had relationships where one or more of their previous partners had left negative feedback, which may or may not be justified. The potential victim might reasonably be more careful with the ones that have dodgy reputations, whether they’re justified or not, and even a little wary of those who don’t carry such a device. Why don’t they carry one? Surely if they were OK, they would? That’s what critical mass does. Above a certain level of adoption, it would rapidly become the norm. Like any sort of reputation, giving someone a false or unjustified rating would carry its own penalty. If you try to get back at an ex by telling lies about them, you’d quickly be identified as a liar by others, or they might sue you for libel. Even at this level, social networking can help alert some people to potential danger some of the time.

Suppose someone ends up being raped. Thanks to the collection of that data by their device (and those of others) of who was where, when, with whom, the police would more easily be able to identify some of the people the victim had encountered and some of them would be able to identify some of the others who didn’t carry such a device. The data would also help eliminate a lot of potential suspects too. Unless a rapist had planned in advance to rape, they may even have such a device with them. That might itself be a deterrent from later raping someone they’d met, because  they’d know the police would be able to find them easier. Some clubs and pubs might make it compulsory to carry one, to capitalise on the market from being known as relatively safe hangouts. Other clubs and pubs might be forced to follow suit. We could end up with a society where most of the time, potential rapists would know that their proximity to their potential victim would be known most of the time. So they might behave.

So even social networking such as we have today or could easily produce tomorrow is capable of acting as a deterrent to some people considering raping a stranger. It increases their chances of being caught, and provides some circumstantial evidence at least of their relevant movements when they are.

Smartphones are very underused as a tool to deter rape. Frequent use of social nets such as uploading photos or adding a diary entry into Facebook helps to make a picture of events leading up to a crime that may later help in inquiries. Again, that automatically creates a small deterrence by increasing the chances of being investigated. It could go a lot further though. Life-logging may use a microphone that records a continuous audio all day and a camera that records pictures when the scene changes. This already exists but is not in common use yet – frequent Facebook updates are as far as most people currently get to life-logging. Almost any phone is capable of recording audio, and can easily do so from a pocket or bag, but if a camera is to record frequent images, it really needs to be worn. That may be OK in several years if we’re all wearing video visors with built-in cameras, but in practice and for the short-term, we’re realistically stuck with just the audio.

So life-logging technology could record a lot of the events, audio and pictures leading up to an offense, and any smartphone could do at least some of this. A rapist might forcefully search and remove such devices from a victim or their bag, but by then they might already have transmitted a lot of data into the cloud, possibly even evidence of a struggle that may be used later to help convict. If not removed, it could even record audio throughout the offence, providing a good source of evidence. Smartphones also have accelerometers in them, so they could even act as a sort of black box, showing when a victim was still, walking, running, or struggling. Further, phones often have tracking apps on them, so if a rapist did steal a phone, it may show their later movements up to the point where they dumped it. Phones can also be used to issue distress calls. An emergency distress button would be easy to implement, and could transmit exact location stream audio  to the emergency services. An app could also be set up to issue a distress call automatically under specific circumstances, such at it detecting a struggle or a scream or a call for help. Finally, a lot of phones are equipped for ID purposes, and that will generally increase the proportion of people in a building whose identity is known. Someone who habitually uses their phone for such purposes could be asked to justify disabling ID or tracking services when later interviewed in connection with an offense. All of these developments will make it just a little bit harder to escape justice and that knowledge would act as a deterrent.

Overall, a smart phone, with its accelerometer, positioning, audio, image and video recording and its ability to record and transmit any such data on to cloud storage makes it into a potentially very useful black box and that surely must be a significant deterrent. From the point of view of someone falsely accused, it also could act as a valuable proof of innocence if they can show that the whole time they were together was amicable, or if indeed they were somewhere else altogether at the time. So actually, both sides of a date have an interest in using such black box smartphone technology and on a date with someone new, a sensible precautionary habit could be encouraged to enable continuous black box logging throughout a date. People might reasonably object to having a continuous recording happening during a legitimate date if they thought there was a danger it could be used by the other person to entertain their friends or uploaded on to the web later, but it could easily be implemented to protect privacy and avoiding the risk of misuse. That could be achieved by using an app that keeps the record on a database but gives nobody access to it without a court order. It would be hard to find a good reason to object to the other person protecting themselves by using such an app. With such protection and extra protection, perhaps it could become as much part of safe sex as using a condom. Imagine if women’s groups were to encourage a trend to make this sort of recording on dates the norm – no app, no fun!

These technologies would be useful primarily in deterring stranger rape or date rape. I doubt if they would help as much with rapes that are by someone the victim knows. There are a number of reasons. It’s reasonable to assume that when the victim knows the rapist, and especially if they are partners and have regular sex, it is far less likely that either would have a recording going. For example, a woman may change her mind during sex that started off consensually. If the man forces her to continue, it is very unlikely that there would be anything recorded to prove rape occurred. In an abusive or violent relationship, an abused partner might use an audio recording via a hidden device when they are concerned – an app could initiate a recording on detection of a secret keyword, or when voices are raised, even when the phone is put in a particular location or orientation. So it might be easy to hide the fact that a recording is going and it could be useful in some cases. However, the fear of being caught doing so by a violent partner might be a strong deterrent, and an abuser may well have full access to or even control of their partner’s phone, and most of all, a victim generally doesn’t know they are going to be raped. So the phone probably isn’t a very useful factor when the victim and rapist are partners or are often together in that kind of situation. However, when it is two colleagues or friends in a new kind of situation, which also accounts for a significant proportion of rapes, perhaps it is more appropriate and normal dating protocols for black box app use may more often apply. Companies could help protect employees by insisting that such a black box recording is in force when any employees are together, in or out of office hours. They could even automate it by detecting proximity of their employees’ phones.

The smartphone is already ubiquitous and everyone is familiar with installing and using apps, so any of this could be done right away. A good campaign supported by the right groups could ensure good uptake of such apps very quickly. And it needn’t be all phone-centric. A new class of device would be useful for those who feel threatened in abusive relationships. Thanks to miniaturisation, recording and transmission devices can easily be concealed in just about any everyday object, many that would be common in a handbag or bedroom drawer or on a bedside table. If abuse isn’t just a one-off event, they may offer a valuable means of providing evidence to deal with an abusive partner.

Obviously, black boxes or audio recording can’t stop someone from using force or threats, but it can provide good quality evidence, and the deterrent effect of likely being caught is a strong defence against any kind of crime. I think that is probably as far as technology can go. Self-defense weapons such as pepper sprays and rape alarms already exist, but we don’t allow use of tasers or knives or guns and similar restrictions would apply to future defence technologies. Automatically raising an alarm and getting help to the scene quickly is the only way we can reasonably expect technology to help deal with a rape that is occurring, but that makes the use of deterrence via probably detection all the more valuable. Since the technologies also help protect the innocent against false accusations, that would help in getting their social adoption.

So much for what we could do with existing technology. In a few years, we will become accustomed to having patches of electronics stuck on our skin. Active skin and even active makeup will have a lot of medical functions, but it could also include accelerometers, recording devices, pressure sensors and just about anything that uses electronics. Any part of the body can be printed with active skin or active makeup, which is then potentially part of this black box system. Invisibly small sensors in makeup, on thin membranes or even embedded among skin cells could notionally detect, measure and record any kiss, caress, squeeze or impact, even record the physical sensations experiences by recording the nerve signals. It could record pain or discomfort, along with precise timing, location, and measure many properties of the skin touching or kissing it too. It might be possible for a victim to prove exactly when a rape happened, exactly what it involved, and who was responsible. Such technology is already being researched around the world. It will take a while to develop and become widespread, but it will come.

I don’t want this to sound frivolous, but I suggested many years ago that when women get breast implants, they really ought to have at least some of the space used for useful electronics, and electronics can actually be made using silicone. A potential rapist can’t steal or deactivate a smart breast implant as easily as a phone. If a woman is going to get implants anyway, why not get ones that increase her safety by having some sort of built-in black box? We don’t have to wait a decade for the technology to do that.

The statistics show that many rapes and sexual assaults that are reported don’t result in a conviction. Some accusations may be false, and I couldn’t find any figures for that number, but lack of good evidence is one of the biggest reasons why many genuine rapes don’t result in conviction. Technology can’t stop rapes, but it can certainly help a lot to provide good quality evidence to make convictions more likely when rapes and assaults do occur.

By making people more aware of potentially risky dates, and by gathering continuous data streams when they are with someone, technology can provide an extra level of safety and a good deterrent against rape and sexual assault. That in no way implies that rape is anyone’s fault except the rapist, but with high social support, it could help make a significant drop in rape incidence and a large rise in conviction rates. I am aware that in the biggest category, the technology I suggest has the smallest benefit to offer, so we will still need to tackle rape by other means. It is only a start, but better some reduction than none.

The rest of this blog is about rape statistics, not about technology or the future. It may be of interest to some readers. Its overwhelming conclusion is that official stats are a mess and nobody has a clue how many rapes actually take place.

Summary Statistics

We hear politicians and special interest groups citing and sometimes misrepresenting wildly varying statistics all the time, and now I know why. It’s hard to know the true scale of the problem, and very easy indeed to be confused by  poor presentation of poor quality government statistics in the sexual offenses category. That is a huge issue and source of problems in itself. Although it is very much on the furthest edge of my normal brief, I spent three days trawling through the whole sexual offenses field, looking at the crime survey questionnaires, the gaping holes and inconsistencies in collected data, and the evolution of offense categories over the last decade. It is no wonder government policies and public debate are so confused when the data available is so poor. It very badly needs fixed. 

There are several stages at which some data is available outside and within the justice system. The level of credibility of a claim obviously varies at each stage as the level of evidence increases.

Outside of the justice system, someone may claim to have been raped in a self-completion module of The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), knowing that it is anonymous, nobody will query their response, no further verification will be required and there will be no consequences for anyone. There are strong personal and political reasons why people may be motivated to give false information in a survey designed to measure crime levels (in either direction), especially in those sections not done by face to face interview, and these reasons are magnified when people filling it in know that their answers will be scaled up to represent the whole population, so that already introduces a large motivational error source. However, even for a person fully intending to tell the truth in the survey, some questions are ambiguous or biased, and some are highly specific while others leave far too much scope for interpretation, leaving gaps in some areas while obsessing with others. In my view, the CSEW is badly conceived and badly implemented. In spite of unfounded government and police assurances that it gives a more accurate picture of crime than other sources, having read it, I have little more confidence in the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW)  as an indicator of actual crime levels than a casual conversation in a pub. We can be sure that some people don’t report some rapes for a variety of reasons and that in itself is a cause for concern. We don’t know how many go unreported, and the CSEW is not a reasonable indicator. We need a more reliable source.

The next stage for potential stats is that anyone may report any rape to the police, whether of themselves, a friend or colleague, witnessing a rape of a stranger, or even something they heard. The police will only record some of these initial reports as crimes, on a fairly common sense approach. According to the report, ‘the police record a crime if, on the balance of probability, the circumstances as reported amount to a crime defined by law and if there is no credible evidence to the contrary‘. 7% of these are later dropped for reasons such as errors in initial recording or retraction. However, it has recently been revealed that some forces record every crime reported whereas others record it only after it has passed the assessment above, damaging the quality of the data by mixing two different types of data together. In such an important area of crime, it is most unsatisfactory that proper statistics are not gathered in a consistent way for each stage of the criminal justice process, using the same criteria in every force.

Having recorded crimes, the police will proceed some of them through the criminal justice system.

Finally, the courts will find proven guilt in some of those cases.

I looked for the data for each of these stages, expecting to find vast numbers of table detailing everything. Perhaps they exist, and I certainly followed a number of promising routes, but most of the roads I followed ended up leading back to the CSEW and the same overview report. This joint overview report for the UK was produced by the  Ministry of Justice, Home Office and the Office for National Statistics in 2013, and it includes a range of tables with selected data from actual convictions through to results of the crime survey of England and Wales. While useful, it omits a lot of essential data that I couldn’t find anywhere else either.

The report and its tables can be accessed from:—wales/december-2012/index.html

Another site gives a nice infographic on police recording, although for a different period. It is worth looking at if only to see the wonderful caveat: ‘the police figures exclude those offences which have not been reported to them’. Here it is:

In my view the ‘overview of sexual offending’ report mixes different qualities of data for different crimes and different victim groups in such a way as to invite confusion, distortion and misrepresentation. I’d encourage you to read it yourself if only to convince you of the need to pressure government to do it properly. Be warned, a great deal of care is required to work out exactly what and which victim group each refers to. Some figures include all people, some only females, some only women 16-59 years old. Some refer to different crime groups with similar sounding names such as sexual assault and sexual offence, some include attempts whereas others don’t. Worst of all, some very important statistics are missing, and it’s easy to assume another one refers to what you are looking for when on closer inspection, it doesn’t. However, there doesn’t appear to be a better official report available, so I had to use it. I’ve done my best to extract and qualify the headline statistics.

Taking rapes against both males and females, in 2011, 1153 people were convicted of carrying out 2294 rapes or attempted rapes, an average of 2 each. The conviction rate was 34.6% of 6630 proceeded against, from 16041 rapes or attempted rapes recorded by the police. Inexplicably, conviction figures are not broken down by victim gender, nor by rape or attempted rape. 

Police recording stats are broken down well. Of the 16041, 1274 (8%) of the rapes and attempted rapes recorded by the police were against males, while 14767 (92%) were against females. 33% of the female rapes recorded and 70% of male rapes recorded were against children (though far more girls were raped than boys). Figures are also broken down well against ethnicity and age, for offender and victim. Figures elsewhere suggested that 25% of rape attempts are unsuccessful, which combined with the 92% proportion that were rapes of females would indicate 1582 convictions for actual rape of a female, approximately 1060 women and 522 girls, but those figures only hold true if the proportions are similar through to conviction. 

Surely such a report should clearly state such an important figure as the number of rapes of a female that led to a conviction, and not leave it to readers to calculate their own estimate from pieces of data spread throughout the report. Government needs to do a lot better at gathering, categorising, analysing and reporting clear and accurate data. 

That 1582 figure for convictions is important, but it represents only the figure for rapes proven beyond reasonable doubt. Some females were raped and the culprit went unpunished. There has been a lot of recent effort to try to get a better conviction rate for rapes. Getting better evidence more frequently would certainly help get more convictions. A common perception is that many or even most rapes are unreported so the focus is often on trying to get more women to report it when they are raped. If someone knows they have good evidence, they are more likely to report a rape or assault, since one of the main reasons they don’t report it is lack of confidence that the police can do anything.

Although I don’t have much confidence in the figures from the CSEW, I’ll list them anyway. Perhaps you have greater confidence in them. The CSEW uses a sample of people, and then results are scaled up to a representation of the whole population. The CSEW (Crime Survey of England and Wales) estimates that 52000 (95% confidence level of between 39000 and 66000) women between 16 and 59 years old claim to have been victim of actual rape in the last 12 months, based on anonymous self-completion questionnaires, with 69000 (95% confidence level of between 54000 and 85000) women claiming to have been victim of attempted or actual rape in the last 12 months. 

In the same period, 22053 sexual assaults were recorded by the police. I couldn’t find any figures for convictions for sexual assaults, only for sexual offenses, which is a different, far larger category that includes indecent exposure and voyeurism. It isn’t clear why the report doesn’t include the figures for sexual assault convictions. Again, government should do better in their collection and presentation of important statistics.

The overview report also gives the stats for the number of women who said they reported a rape or attempted rape. 15% of women said they told the police, 57% said they told someone else but not the police, and 28% said they told nobody. The report does give the reasons commonly cited for not telling the police: “Based on the responses of female victims in the 2011/12 survey, the most frequently cited were that it would be ‘embarrassing’, they ‘didn’t think the police could do much to help’, that the incident was ‘too trivial/not worth reporting’, or that they saw it as a ‘private/family matter and not police business’.”

Whether you pick the 2110 convictions of rape or attempted rape against a female or the 69000 claimed in anonymous questionnaires, or anywhere in between, a lot of females are being subjected to actual and attempted rapes, and a lot victim of sexual assault. The high proportion of victims that are young children is especially alarming. Male rape is a big problem too, but the figures are a lot lower than for female rape.

Will population grow again after 2050? To 15Bn?

We’ve been told for decades now that population will level off, probably around 2050, and population after that will likely decline. The world population will peak around 2050 at about 9.5 Billion. That’s pretty much the accepted wisdom at the moment.

The reasoning is pretty straight forward and seems sound, and the evidence follows it closely. People are becoming wealthier. Wealthier people have fewer kids. If you don’t expect your kids to die from disease or starvation before they’re grown up, you don’t need to make as many.

But what if it’s based on fallacy? What if it is just plain wrong? What if the foundations of that reasoning change dramatically by 2050 and it no longer holds true? Indeed. What if?

Before I continue, let me say that my book ‘Total Sustainability’, and my various optimistic writings and blogs about population growth all agree with the view that population will level off around 2050 and then slowly decline, while food supply and resource use will improve thanks to better technologies, thereby helping us to restore the environment. If population may increase again, I and many others will have to rethink.

The reason I am concerned now is that I just made another cross-link with the trend of rising wealth, which will allow even the most basic level of welfare to be set at a high level. It is like the citizen payment that the Swiss voted on recently. I suggested it a couple of years ago myself and in my books, and am in favour of it. Everyone would receive the same monthly payment from the state whether they work or not. The taxes due would then be calculated on the total income, regardless of how you get it, and I would use a flat tax for that too. Quite simple and fair. Only wealthier people pay any tax and then according to how wealthy they are. My calculations say that by 2050, everyone in the UK could get £30,000 a year each (in today’s money) based on the typical level of growth we’ve seen in recent decades (ignoring the recession years). In some countries it would be even higher, in some less, but the cost of living is also less in many countries. In many countries welfare could be as generous as average wages are today.

So by 2050, people in many countries could have an income that allows them to survive reasonably comfortably, even without having a job. That won’t stop everyone working, but it will make it much easier for people who want to raise a family to do so without economic concerns or having to go out to work. It will become possible to live comfortably without working and raise a family.

We know that people tend to have fewer kids as they become wealthier, but there are a number of possible reasons for that. One is the better survival chances for children. That may still have an effect in the developing world, but has little effect in richer countries, so it probably won’t have any impact on future population levels in those countries. Another is the need to work to sustain the higher standard of living one has become used to, to maintain a social status and position, and the parallel reluctance to have kids that will make that more difficult. While a small number of people have kids as a means to solicit state support, but that must be tiny compared to the numbers who have fewer so that they can self sustain. Another reason is that having kids impedes personal freedom, impacts on social life and sex life and adds perhaps unwelcome responsibility. These reasons are all vulnerable to the changes caused by increasing welfare and consequential attitudes. There are probably many other reasons too. 

Working and having fewer kids allows a higher standard of living than having kids and staying at home to look after them, but most people are prepared to compromise on material quality of life to some degree to get the obvious emotional rewards of having kids. Perhaps people are having fewer kids as they get wealthier because the drop of standard of living is too high, or the risks too high. If the guaranteed basic level of survival is comfortable, there is little risk. If a lot of people choose not to work and just live on that, there will also be less social stigma in not working, and more social opportunities from having more people in the same boat. So perhaps we may reasonably deduce that making it less uncomfortable to stop work and have more kids will create a virtuous circle of more and more people having more kids.

I won’t go as far as saying that will happen, just that it might. I don’t know enough about the relative forces that make someone decide whether to have another child. It is hard to predetermine the social attitudes that will prevail in 2050 and beyond, whether people will feel encouraged or deterred from having more kids.

My key point here is that the drop in fertility we see today due to increasing wealth might only hold true up to a certain point, beyond which it reverses. It may simply be that the welfare and social floor is too low to offer a sufficient safety net for those considering having kids, so they choose not to. If the floor is raised thanks to improving prosperity, as it might well be, then population could start to rise quickly again. The assumption that population will peak at 9 or 9.5 billion and then fall might be wrong. It could rise to up to 15 billion, at which point other factors will start to reassert themselves. If our assumptions on age of death are also underestimates, it could go even higher.