Category Archives: IT

The future of reproductive choice

I’m not taking sides on the abortion debate, just drawing maps of the potential future, so don’t shoot the messenger.

An average baby girl is born with a million eggs, still has 300,000 when she reaches puberty, and subsequently releases 300 – 400 of these over her reproductive lifetime. Typically one or two will become kids but today a woman has no way of deciding which ones, and she certainly has no control over which sperm is used beyond choosing her partner.

Surely it can’t be very far in the future (as a wild guess, say 2050) before we fully understand the links between how someone is and their genetics (and all the other biological factors involved in determining outcome too). That knowledge could then notionally be used to create some sort of nanotech (aka magic) gate that would allow her to choose which of her eggs get to be ovulated and potentially fertilized, wasting ones she isn’t interested in and going for it when she’s released a good one. Maybe by 2060, women would also be able to filter sperm the same way, helping some while blocking others. Choice needn’t be limited to whether to have a baby or not, but which baby.

Choosing a particularly promising egg and then which sperm would combine best with it, an embryo might be created only if it is likely to result in the right person (perhaps an excellent athlete, or an artist, or a scientist, or just good looking), or deselected if it would become the wrong person (e.g. a terrorist, criminal, saxophonist, Republican).

However, by the time we have the technology to do that, and even before we fully know what gene combos result in what features, we would almost certainly be able to simply assemble any chosen DNA and insert it into an egg from which the DNA has been removed. That would seem a more reliable mechanism to get the ‘perfect’ baby than choosing from a long list of imperfect ones. Active assembly should beat deselection from a random list.

By then, we might even be using new DNA bases that don’t exist in nature, invented by people or AI to add or control features or abilities nature doesn’t reliably provide for.

If we can do that, and if we know how to simulate how someone might turn out, then we could go further and create lots of electronic babies that live their entire lives in an electronic Matrix style existence. Let’s expand on that briefly.

Even today, couples can store eggs and sperm for later use, but with this future genetic assembly, it will become feasible to create offspring from nothing more than a DNA listing. DNA from both members of a couple, of any sex, could get a record of their DNA, randomize combinations with their partner’s DNA and thus get a massive library of potential offspring. They may even be able to buy listings of celebrity DNA from the net. This creates the potential for greatly delayed birth and tradable ‘ebaybies’ – DNA listings are not alive so current laws don’t forbid trading in them. These listings could however be used to create electronic ‘virtual’offspring, simulated in a computer memory instead of being born organically. Various degrees of existence are possible with varied awareness. Couples may have many electronic babies as well as a few real ones. They may even wait to see how a simulation works out before deciding which kids to make for real. If an electronic baby turns out particularly well, it might be promoted to actual life via DNA assembly and real pregnancy. The following consequences are obvious:

Trade-in and collection of DNA listings, virtual embryos, virtual kids etc, that could actually be fabricated at some stage

Re-birth, potential to clone and download one’s mind or use a direct brain link to live in a younger self

Demands by infertile and gay couples to have babies via genetic assembly

Ability of kids to own entire populations of virtual people, who are quite real in some ways.

It is clear that this whole technology field is rich in ethical issues! But we don’t need to go deep into future tech to find more of those. Just following current political trends to their logical conclusions introduces a lot more. I’ve written often on the random walk of values, and we cannot be confident that many values we hold today will still reign in decades time. Where might this random walk lead? Let’s explore some more.

Even in ‘conventional’ pregnancies, although the right to choose has been firmly established in most of the developed world, a woman usually has very little information about the fetus and has to make her decision almost entirely based on her own circumstances and values. The proportion of abortions related to known fetal characteristics such as genetic conditions or abnormalities is small. Most decisions can’t yet take any account of what sort of person that fetus might become. We should expect future technology to provide far more information on fetus characteristics and likely future development. Perhaps if a woman is better informed on likely outcomes, might that sometimes affect her decision, in either direction?

In some circumstances, potential outcome may be less certain and an informed decision might require more time or more tests. To allow for that without reducing the right to choose, is possible future law could allow for conditional terminations, registered before a legal time limit but performed later (before another time limit) when more is known. This period could be used for more medical tests, or to advertise the baby to potential adopters that want a child just like that one, or simply to allow more time for the mother to see how her own circumstances change. Between 2005 and 2015, USA abortion rate dropped from 1 in 6 pregnancies to 1 in 7, while in the UK, 22% of pregnancies are terminated. What would these figures be if women could determine what future person would result? Would termination rate increase? To 30%, 50%? Abandon this one and see if we can make a better one? How many of us would exist if our parents had known then what they know now?

Whether and how late terminations should be permitted is still fiercely debated. There is already discussion about allowing terminations right up to birth and even after birth in particular circumstances. If so, then why stop there? We all know people who make excellent arguments for retrospective abortion. Maybe future parents should be allowed to decide whether to keep a child right up until it reaches its teens, depending on how the child turns out. Why not 16, or 18, or even 25, when people truly reach adulthood? By then they’d know what kind of person they’re inflicting on the world. Childhood and teen years could simply be a trial period. And why should only the parents have a say? Given an overpopulated world with an infinite number of potential people that could be brought into existence, perhaps the state could also demand a high standard of social performance before assigning a life license. The Chinese state already uses surveillance technology to assign social scores. It is a relatively small logical step further to link that to life licenses that require periodic renewal. Go a bit further if you will, and link that thought to the blog I just wrote on future surveillance:

Those of you who have watched Logan’s Run will be familiar with the idea of  compulsory termination at a certain age. Why not instead have a flexible age that depends on social score? It could range from zero to 100. A pregnancy might only be permitted if the genetic blueprint passes a suitability test and then as nurture and environmental factors play their roles as a person ages, their life license could be renewed (or not) every year. A range of crimes might also result in withdrawal of a license, and subsequent termination.

Finally, what about AI? Future technology will allow us to make hybrids, symbionts if you like, with a genetically edited human-ish body, and a mind that is part human, part AI, with the AI acting partly as enhancement and partly as a control system. Maybe the future state could insist that installation into the embryo of a state ‘guardian’, a ‘supervisory AI’, essentially a deeply embedded police officer/judge/jury/executioner will be required to get the life license.

Random walks are dangerous. You can end up where you start, or somewhere very far away in any direction.

The legal battles and arguments around ‘choice’ won’t go away any time soon. They will become broader, more complex, more difficult, and more controversial.


Future Surveillance

This is an update of my last surveillance blog 6 years ago, much of which is common discussion now. I’ll briefly repeat key points to save you reading it.

They used to say

“Don’t think it

If you must think it, don’t say it

If you must say it, don’t write it

If you must write it, don’t sign it”

Sadly this wisdom is already as obsolete as Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. The last three lines have already been automated.

I recently read of new headphones designed to recognize thoughts so they know what you want to listen to. Simple thought recognition in various forms has been around for 20 years now. It is slowly improving but with smart networked earphones we’re already providing an easy platform into which to sneak better monitoring and better though detection. Sold on convenience and ease of use of course.

You already know that Google and various other large companies have very extensive records documenting many areas of your life. It’s reasonable to assume that any or all of this could be demanded by a future government. I trust Google and the rest to a point, but not a very distant one.

Your phone, TV, Alexa, or even your networked coffee machine may listen in to everything you say, sending audio records to cloud servers for analysis, and you only have naivety as defense against those audio records being stored and potentially used for nefarious purposes.

Some next generation games machines will have 3D scanners and UHD cameras that can even see blood flow in your skin. If these are hacked or left switched on – and social networking video is one of the applications they are aiming to capture, so they’ll be on often – someone could watch you all evening, capture the most intimate body details, film your facial expressions and gaze direction while you are looking at a known image on a particular part of the screen. Monitoring pupil dilation, smiles, anguished expressions etc could provide a lot of evidence for your emotional state, with a detailed record of what you were watching and doing at exactly that moment, with whom. By monitoring blood flow and pulse via your Fitbit or smartwatch, and additionally monitoring skin conductivity, your level of excitement, stress or relaxation can easily be inferred. If given to the authorities, this sort of data might be useful to identify pedophiles or murderers, by seeing which men are excited by seeing kids on TV or those who get pleasure from violent games, and it is likely that that will be one of the justifications authorities will use for its use.

Millimetre wave scanning was once controversial when it was introduced in airport body scanners, but we have had no choice but to accept it and its associated abuses –  the only alternative is not to fly. 5G uses millimeter wave too, and it’s reasonable to expect that the same people who can already monitor your movements in your home simply by analyzing your wi-fi signals will be able to do a lot better by analyzing 5G signals.

As mm-wave systems develop, they could become much more widespread so burglars and voyeurs might start using them to check if there is anything worth stealing or videoing. Maybe some search company making visual street maps might ‘accidentally’ capture a detailed 3d map of the inside of your house when they come round as well or instead of everything they could access via your wireless LAN.

Add to this the ability to use drones to get close without being noticed. Drones can be very small, fly themselves and automatically survey an area using broad sections of the electromagnetic spectrum.

NFC bank and credit cards not only present risks of theft, but also the added ability to track what we spend, where, on what, with whom. NFC capability in your phone makes some parts of life easier, but NFC has always been yet another doorway that may be left unlocked by security holes in operating systems or apps and apps themselves carry many assorted risks. Many apps ask for far more permissions than they need to do their professed tasks, and their owners collect vast quantities of information for purposes known only to them and their clients. Obviously data can be collected using a variety of apps, and that data linked together at its destination. They are not all honest providers, and apps are still very inadequately regulated and policed.

We’re seeing increasing experimentation with facial recognition technology around the world, from China to the UK, and only a few authorities so far such as in San Francisco have had the wisdom to ban its use. Heavy handed UK police, who increasingly police according to their own political agenda even at the expense of policing actual UK law, have already fined people who have covered themselves to avoid being abused in face recognition trials. It is reasonable to assume they would gleefully seize any future opportunity to access and cross-link all of the various data pools currently being assembled under the excuse of reducing crime, but with the real intent of policing their own social engineering preferences. Using advanced AI to mine zillions of hours of full-sensory data input on every one of us gathered via all this routine IT exposure and extensive and ubiquitous video surveillance, they could deduce everyone’s attitudes to just about everything – the real truth about our attitudes to every friend and family member or TV celebrity or politician or product, our detailed sexual orientation, any fetishes or perversions, our racial attitudes, political allegiances, attitudes to almost every topic ever aired on TV or everyday conversation, how hard we are working, how much stress we are experiencing, many aspects of our medical state.

It doesn’t even stop with public cameras. Innumerable cameras and microphones on phones, visors, and high street private surveillance will automatically record all this same stuff for everyone, sometimes with benign declared intentions such as making self-driving vehicles safer, sometimes using social media tribes to capture any kind of evidence against ‘the other’. In depth evidence will become available to back up prosecutions of crimes that today would not even be noticed. Computers that can retrospectively date mine evidence collected over decades and link it all together will be able to identify billions of real or invented crimes.

Active skin will one day link your nervous system to your IT, allowing you to record and replay sensations. You will never be able to be sure that you are the only one that can access that data either. I could easily hide algorithms in a chip or program that only I know about, that no amount of testing or inspection could ever reveal. If I can, any decent software engineer can too. That’s the main reason I have never trusted my IT – I am quite nice but I would probably be tempted to put in some secret stuff on any IT I designed. Just because I could and could almost certainly get away with it. If someone was making electronics to link to your nervous system, they’d probably be at least tempted to put a back door in too, or be told to by the authorities.

The current panic about face recognition is justified. Other AI can lipread better than people and recognize gestures and facial expressions better than people. It adds the knowledge of everywhere you go, everyone you meet, everything you do, everything you say and even every emotional reaction to all of that to all the other knowledge gathered online or by your mobile, fitness band, electronic jewelry or other accessories.

Fools utter the old line: “if you are innocent, you have nothing to fear”. Do you know anyone who is innocent? Of everything? Who has never ever done or even thought anything even a little bit wrong? Who has never wanted to do anything nasty to anyone for any reason ever? And that’s before you even start to factor in corruption of the police or mistakes or being framed or dumb juries or secret courts. The real problem here is not the abuses we already see. It is what is being and will be collected and stored, forever, that will be available to all future governments of all persuasions and police authorities who consider themselves better than the law. I’ve said often that our governments are often incompetent but rarely malicious. Most of our leaders are nice guys, only a few are corrupt, but most are technologically inept . With an increasingly divided society, there’s a strong chance that the ‘wrong’ government or even a dictatorship could get in. Which of us can be sure we won’t be up against the wall one day?

We’ve already lost the battle to defend privacy. The only bits left are where the technology hasn’t caught up yet. In the future, not even the deepest, most hidden parts of your mind will be private. Pretty much everything about you will be available to an AI-upskilled state and its police.

Your phone is wasted on you

Between 1983 and 1985, the fastest computer on Earth was the Cray X-MP. Its two 105MHz processors and 16MB of memory provided a peak performance of 400MFLOPS. It cost around $15M + disks.

The Apple iPhone XS is 1500 times faster and 15000 times cheaper.

In 1985, our division of 50 people ran all of its word processing on a VAX 11- 780, that produced 0.5MIPS (32bit). On equivalent instructions per second basis, the iPhone XS is 2.5M times faster, so ought to be able to run word processing for a country of 125M people.

Think about that next time you’re typing a text.


The future for women, pdf version

It is several years since my last post on the future as it will affect women so here is my new version as a pdf presentation:

Women and the Future

Augmented reality will objectify women

Microsoft Hololens 2 Visor

The excitement around augmented reality continues to build, and I am normally  enthusiastic about its potential, looking forward to enjoying virtual architecture, playing immersive computer games, or enjoying visual and performance artworks transposed into my view of the high street while I shop.

But it won’t all be wonderful. While a few PR and marketing types may worry a little about people overlaying or modifying their hard-won logos and ads, a bigger issue will be some people choosing to overlay people in the high street with ones that are a different age or gender or race, or simply prettier. Identity politics will be fought on yet another frontier.

In spite of waves of marketing hype and misrepresentation, AR is really only here in primitive form outside the lab. Visors fall very far short of what we’d hoped for by now even a decade ago, even the Hololens 2 shown above. But soon AR visors and eventually active contact lenses will enable fully 3D hi-res overlays on the real world. Then, in principle at least, you can make things look how you want, with a few basic limits. You could certainly transform a dull shop, cheap hotel room or an office into an elaborate palace or make it look like a spaceship. But even if you change what things look like, you still have to represent nearby physical structures and obstacles in your fantasy overlay world, or you may bump into them, and that includes all the walls and furniture, lamp posts, bollards, vehicles, and of course other people. Augmented reality allows you to change their appearance thoroughly but they still need to be there somehow.

When it comes to people, there will be some battles. You may spend ages creating a wide variety of avatars, or may invest a great deal of time and money making or buying them. You may have a digital aura, hoping to present different avatars to different passers-by according to their profiles. You may want to look younger or thinner or as a character you enjoy playing in a computer game. You may present a selection of options to the AIs controlling the passer person’s view and the avatar they see overlaid could be any one of the images you have on offer. Perhaps some privileged people get to pick from a selection you offer, while others you wish to privilege less are restricted to just one that you have set for their profile. Maybe you’d have a particularly ugly or offensive one to present to those with opposing political views.

Except that you can’t assume you will be in control. In fact, you probably won’t.

Other people may choose not to see your avatar, but instead to superimpose one of their own choosing. The question of who decides what the viewer sees is perhaps the first and most important battle in AR. Various parties would like to control it – visor manufacturers, O/S providers, UX designers, service providers, app creators, AI providers, governments, local councils, police and other emergency services, advertisers and of course individual users. Given market dynamics, most of these ultimately come down to user choice most of the time, albeit sometimes after paying for the privilege. So it probably won’t be you who gets to choose how others see you, via assorted paid intermediary services, apps and AI, it will be the other person deciding how they want to see you, regardless of your preferences.

So you can spend all the time you want designing your avatar and tweaking your virtual make-up to perfection, but if someone wants to see their favorite celebrity walking past instead of you, they will. You and your body become no more than an object on which to display any avatar or image someone else chooses. You are quite literally reduced to an object in the AR world. Augmented reality will literally objectify women, reducing them to no more than a moving display space onto which their own selected images are overlaid. A few options become obvious.

Firstly they may just take your actual physical appearance (via a video camera built into their visor for example) and digitally change it,  so it is still definitely you, but now dressed more nicely, or dressed in sexy lingerie, or how you might look naked, using the latest AI to body-fit fantasy images from a porn database. This could easily be done automatically in real time using some app or other. You’ve probably already seen recent AI video fakery demos that can present any celebrity saying anything at all, almost indistinguishable from reality. That will soon be pretty routine tech for AR apps. They could even use your actual face as input to image-matching search engines to find the most plausible naked lookalikes. So anyone could digitally dress or undress you, not just with their eyes, but with a hi-res visor using sophisticated AI-enabled image processing software. They could put you in any kind of outfit, change your skin color or make-up or age or figure, and make you look as pretty and glamorous or as slutty as they want. And you won’t have any idea what they are seeing. You simply won’t know whether they are respectfully celebrating your inherent beauty, or flattering you by making you look even prettier, which you might not mind at all, or might object to strongly in the absence of explicit consent, or worse still, stripping or degrading you to whatever depths they wish, with no consent or notification, which you probably will mind a lot.

Or they can treat you as just an object on which to superimpose some other avatar, which could be anything or anyone – a zombie, favorite actress or supermodel. They won’t need your consent and again you won’t have any idea what they are seeing. The avatar may make the same gestures and movements and even talk plausibly, saying whatever their AI thinks they might like, but it won’t be you. In some ways this might not be so bad. You’d still be reduced to an object but at least it wouldn’t be you that they’re looking at naked. To most strangers on a high street most of the time, you’re just a moving obstacle to avoid bumping into, so being digitally transformed into a walking display board may worry you. Most people will cope with that bit. It is when you stop being just a passing stranger and start to interact in some way that it really starts to matter. You probably won’t like it if someone is chatting to you but they are actually looking at someone else entirely, especially if the viewer is one of your friends or your partner. And if your partner is kissing or cuddling you but seeing someone else, that would be a strong breach of trust, but how would you know? This sort of thing could and probably will damage a lot of relationships.

Most of the software to do most of this is already in development and much is already demonstrable. The rest will develop quickly once AR visors become commonplace.

In the office, in the home, when you’re shopping or at a party, you soon won’t have any idea what or who someone else is seeing when they look at you. Imagine how that would clash with rules that are supposed to be protection from sexual harassment  in the office. Whole new levels of harassment will be enabled, much invisible. How can we police behaviors we can’t even detect? Will hardware manufacturers be forced to build in transparency and continuous experience recording

The main casualty will be trust.  It will make us question how much we trust each of our friends and colleagues and acquaintances. It will build walls. People will often become suspicious of others, not just strangers but friends and colleagues. Some people will become fearful. You may dress as primly or modestly as you like, but if the viewer chooses to see you wearing a sexy outfit, perhaps their behavior and attitude towards you will be governed by that rather than reality. Increased digital objectification might lead to increase physical sexual assault or rape. We may see more people more often objectifying women in more circumstances.

The tech applies equally to men of course. You could make a man look like a silverback gorilla or a zombie or fake-naked. Some men will care more than others, but the vast majority of real victims will undoubtedly be women. Many men objectify women already. In the future AR world , they’ll be able to do so far more effectively, more easily.


Future AI: Turing multiplexing, air gels, hyper-neural nets

Just in time to make 2018 a bit less unproductive, I managed to wake in the middle of the night with another few inventions. I’m finishing the year on only a third as many as 2016 and 2017, but better than some years. And I quite like these new ones.

Gel computing is a very old idea of mine, and I’m surprised no company has started doing it yet. Air gel is different. My original used a suspension of processing particles in gel, and the idea was that the gel would hold the particles in fixed locations with good free line of sight to neighbor devices for inter-device optical comms, while acting also as a coolant.

Air gel uses the same idea of suspending particles, but does so by using ultrasound, standing waves holding the particles aloft. They would form a semi-gel I suppose, much softer. The intention is that they will be more easily movable than in a gel, and maybe rotate. I imagine using rotating magnetic fields to rotate them, and use that mechanism to implement different configurations of inter-device nets. That would be the first pillar of running multiple neural nets in the same space at the same time, using spin-based TDM (time division multiplexing), or synchronized space multiplexing if you prefer. If a device uses on board processing that is fast compared to the signal transmission time to other devices (the speed of light may be fast but can still be severely limiting for processing and comms), then having the ability to deal with processing associated with several other networks while awaiting a response allows a processing network to be multiplied up several times. A neural net could become a hyper-neural net.

Given that this is intended for mid-century AI, I’m also making the assumption that true TDM can also be used on each net, my second pillar. Signals would carry a stream of slots holding bits for each processing instance. Since this allows a Turing machine to implement many different processes in parallel, I decided to call it Turing multiplexing. Again, it helps alleviate the potential gulf between processing and communication times. Combining Turing and spin multiplexing would allow a single neural net to be multiplied up potentially thousands or millions of times – hyper-neurons seems as good a term as any.

The third pillar of this system is that the processing particles (each could contain a large number of neurons or other IT objects) could be energized and clocked using very high speed alternating EM fields – radio, microwaves, light, even x-rays. I don’t have any suggestions for processing mechanisms that might operate at such frequencies, though Pauli switches might work at lower speeds, using Pauli exclusion principle to link electron spin states to make switches. I believe early versions of spin cubits use a similar principle. I’m agnostic whether conventional Turing machine or quantum processing would be used, or any combination. In any case, it isn’t my problem, I suspect that future AIs will figure out the physics and invent the appropriate IT.

Processing devices operating at high speed could use a lot of energy and generate a lot of heat, and encouraging the system to lase by design would be a good way to cool it as well as powering it.

A processor using such mechanisms need not be bulky. I always assumed a yogurt pot size for my gel computer before and an air gel processor could be the same, about 100ml. That is enough to suspend a trillion particles with good line of sight for optical interconnections, and each connection could utilise up to millions of alternative wavelengths. Each wavelength could support many TDM channels and spinning the particles multiplies that up again. A UV laser clock/power source driving processors at 10^16Hz would certainly need to use high density multiplexing to make use of such a volume, with transmission distances up to 10cm (but most sub-mm) otherwise being a strongly limiting performance factor, but 10 million-fold WDM/TDM is attainable.

A trillion of these hyper-neurons using that multiplexing would act very effectively as 10 million trillion neurons, each operating at 10^16Hz processing speed. That’s quite a lot of zeros, 35 of them, and yet each hyperneuron could have connections to thousands of others in each of many physical configurations. It would be an obvious platform for supporting a large population of electronically immortal people and AIs who each want a billion replicas, and if it only occupies 100ml of space, the environmental footprint isn’t an issue.

It’s hard to know how to talk to a computer that operates like a brain, but is 10^22 times faster, but I’d suggest ‘Yes Boss’.


The future of retail and the high street

Over 3 months since my last blog, because… reasons. Futurologists are often asked about the future of the high street and the future of retail, obviously strongly connected, because the high street as we knew it not long ago has already changed hugely and yet seemingly always under imminent threat of extinction. I have blogged on it, but am shocked that my last one was a few years ago, so time for an update I guess, especially with the news today that Debenhams may be closing 50 of its stores.

A few old blogs that are still relevant:

Just one of those Ss stood for Surprise, or serendipity if you prefer. The surprise aisles in Lidl and Aldi are among the biggest reasons for their success. There’s always something you never knew you wanted at a price you can’t resist, so they do well. Good luck to them! Not knowing what you want before you see it explains much of the attraction of charity shops too, it isn’t all about price.

My other Ss are also still proven well founded (socialising (including coffee shops & Facebook clubs), synergy (between online and physical), service, special, and ‘suck and see’ (try it out before you buy)).

Another blog addressed the balance between high street and out of town centres:

A more recent one on possible reversal of urbanisation in the further future is also a bit relevant:

So, updating then…

Retailers all know that they must have an online presence, but it’s still surprising how little effort they put into making their IT work. I experimented with setting up accounts with some of the big retailers and the experience is shocking. This week, I tried to set up an Argos account, but couldn’t get any further than typing my email address and hitting continue, at which point I just got a message ‘unknown error’. I tried it from various links from emails and their Sainsbury’s owner site, and tried a few times on different days, same result. How can they win new customers online if nobody can set an account up? Does nobody actually ever check whether it still works?

I successfully set up a Next account ages ago, but never used it because it wouldn’t let me edit any of my data such as whether I wanted junk mail by various channels, or even how to spell my name (I’d used my initials ID and it insisted on calling me Id), the options either didn’t exist or were greyed out. I could phone up but why bother? A month ago it stopped working for several days, after which time it eventually said I didn’t have one. So I assumed it had evaporated during their IT changes due to never being used and set it up again, and it recovered all my data from its previous existence. I still won’t use it because it calls me Id, and I can’t change it to I D or even ID.

Very has the same IT trouble, can’t edit your name away from Id, and can’t change your preferences for receiving junk mail, but I only set it up as a test so don’t care.

These companies are among the biggest. If they can’t get it right, who can? I did try a few smaller ones to see if they were better but still got a mixture of some successes and some ‘unknown errors’, 404 messages and so on.

By contrast, I’ve never had an IT-related problem with Amazon or eBay and only a few minor ones with 7dayshop. So I shop there and ignore most other shops. They employ competent IT staff in sufficient numbers to make it work, and they thrive (though perhaps not as much due to IT as tax and rates advantages). Those shops whose poor IT annoys their customers enough  to go elsewhere deserve to do badly. 

Websites and apps are today’s platforms for extending high street presence into cyberspace. Augmented reality will provide those companies who are up to the job with massively superior platforms to do that. The web arose from converging just computing and telecoms. Augmented reality converges the whole of the real and virtual universes. Overlaying absolutely any form of computer-generated imagery, data or media onto anything in the real world, streets could be extra art gallery space, space for computer games, enabling digital architecture and avatar replacement of strangers, adding digital fauna and flora and aliens and cartoon characters and celebs and AI avatars anywhere they may be desired, making enticing imaginary worlds that add to the fun of actually going into town.

It won’t just be text, graphics and audio. Various haptic interfaces already exist, but soon active skin will link our peripheral nervous systems to our IT, allowing sensations to be recorded, associated with whatever caused them, and then reproducing those same sensations when something similar happens virtually. Tiny devices in among skin cells could simply record and reproduce the nerve signals. Each hand only generates about 2Mbit/s of data, only a little more than a basic TV channel, so it should be no big problem handling the data.

AI has really moved on since 2013 too. It’s still far from perfect, but you can use fairly normal English to ask an AI to find you something and it often will, so it’s heading in the right direction. Soon, with 3D life-sized augmented or virtual reality avatars to interface with, they’ll be more in touch with our emotional responses when we browse, getting signals from wearables and active skin, face and gesture recognition, gaze direction, blood flow, heart rates etc. An abundance of data will help future AI’s learn more and more about us and our desires and preferences until they can genuinely act as our agents, (as we already realised was the far future by 1990). It’s only a matter of time. In my estimation, AI is progressing about 30-40% more slowly than it ought, (I won’t write about why I think that is here) but it will still get there. As will VR and AR and active skin and active contact lenses, and various other also long overdue techs.

AI online will also be less impressed by all the distractions and adds humans are exposed to.  Functional shopping will be liable to AI substitution but recreational, social, emotional shopping will still be done by people themselves. 

AI links well to robotics, and at some point, robots will go out and do some of our shopping for us. They will have very different customer characteristics and ergonomic needs, and may be better suited to picking up from bleak warehouses than attractive high street stores with ‘surprise’ aisles.

Drone delivery is much spoken about but I don’t think it has a big future for domestic use except in areas with large back gardens and no pets, or mischievous kids. It will work well for rapid delivery to business delivery bays that have appropriate landing areas and H&S policies.

3D printing is much over-hyped, but will eventually replace a small proportion of shopping by home manufacture, or local 3D print shop for more complex production.

Self-driving and driverless cars will greatly reduce or even eliminate the huge problem of congestion that deters people from going to town, as well as eliminating the much-too-high cost of parking, but without incurring the current public transport penalties of waiting in poor weather, poor stop locations, lateness, sluggishness, discomfort, overcrowding, security, and exposure to disease and unwanted social pests. By collecting from home and delivering all the way to the destination in a suitable vehicle, they will also improve social inclusion for older and disabled people. Driverless cars using smart infrastructure could be achieved many times cheaper and earlier (given the will) than current self-driving approaches, but at the expense of virtually eliminating the car industry that hopes to continue to sell expensive cars that happen to self-drive rather the cheap ($300-500) public pods made of fibreglass that can be made without any need for engines, batteries, AI or sensors and would instead be propelled on factory-made and rapidly installed linear induction mats that switch each pod at each junction rather like routers switch internet data packets.

With easier and faster access to a high street that is made far more attractive by imaginative use of AR, companies sticking to the 6S guide would still be able to attract customers into the far future. While there, they would be able to browse much wider range of stock. A garment wouldn’t need to be stocked with lots of each size, but could just have one of a few sizes for people to see if the like the fabric etc before scanning it with an app or taking it to a till with their laser-scanned body measurements, to have it made in their exact size for delivery later by a rapid personalisation manufacturing industry. As well as having more stock present physically, augmented reality can also replace all the aisles of goods the customer isn’t interested in with ones that hold things available for online purchase from that shop or their allies, adding another virtual-physical synergy to improve revenue potential. Even a small store could potentially hold a vast range of stock to buy in an exciting and attractive personalized environment.

I guess I could go into far future services associated with shops, such as customising VR kit to people’s nervous systems, providing recharging for android shoppers or whatever, but this is already long enough.

So the high street isn’t going to become just coffee shops and charities. Even if some existing retailers don’t up their games and go under, many new ones will appear that understand how to use new technology to good effect, and they will make good profits from both high streets and out of town centres.


Enhanced cellular blockchain

I thought there was a need for a cellular blockchain variant, and a more sustainable alternative to cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin that depend on unsustainable proofs-of-work. So I designed one and gave it a temporary project name of Grapevine. I like biomimetics, which I used for both the blockchain itself and its derivative management/application/currency/SW distribution layer. The ANTs were my invention in 1993 when I was with BT, along with Chris Winter. BT never did anything with it, and I believe MIT later published some notes on the idea too. ANTs provide an ideal companion to blockchain and together, could be the basis of some very secure IT systems.

The following has not been thoroughly checked so may contain serious flaws, but hopefully contain some useful ideas to push the field a little in the right direction.

A cellular, distributed, secure ledger and value assurance system – a cheap, fast, sustainable blockchain variant

  • Global blockchain grows quickly to enormous size because all transactions are recorded in single chain – e.g. bitcoin blockchain is already >100GB
  • Grapevine (temp project name) cellular approach would keep local blocks small and self-contained but assured by blockchain-style verification during growth and protected from tampering after block is sealed and stripped by threading with a global thread
  • Somewhat analogous to a grape vine. Think of each local block as a grape that grow in bunches. Vine links bunches together but grapes are all self-contained and stay small in size. Genetics/nutrients/materials/processes all common to entire vine.
  • Grape starts as a flower, a small collection of unverified transactions. All stamens listen to transactions broadcast via any stamen. Flower is periodically (every minute) frozen (for 2 seconds) while pollen is emitted by each stamen, containing stamen signature, previous status verification and new transactions list. Stamens check the pollen they receive for origin signature and previous growth verification and then check all new transactions. If valid, they emit a signed pollination announcement. When each stamen has received signed pollination announcements from the majority of other stamens, that growth stage is closed, (all quite blockchain-like so far), stripped of unnecessary packaging such as previous hash, signatures etc) to leave a clean record of validated transactions, which is then secured from tampering by the grape signature and hash. The next stage of growth then begins, which needs another pollination process (deviating from biological analogy here). Each grape on the bunch grows like this throughout the day. When the grapes are all fully grown, and the final checks made by each grape, the grapes are stripped again and the whole bunch is signed onto the vine using a highly secure bunch signature and hash to prevent any later tampering. Grapes are therefore collections of verified local transactions that have grown in many fully verified stages during the day but are limited in size and stripped of unnecessary packaging. The bunch is a verified global record of all of the grapes grown that day that remains the same forever. The vine is a growing collection of bunches of grapes, but each new grape and bunch starts off fresh each day so signalling and the chain never grow significantly. Each transaction remains verified and recorded forever but signalling is kept minimal. As processing power increases, earlier bunches can be re-secured using a new bunch signature.

Key Advantages

  • Grape vine analogy is easier for non-IT managers to understand than normal blockchain.
  • Unlike conventional blockchains, blocks grow in stages so transactions don’t have to wait long to be verified and sealed.
  • Cellular structure means signalling is always light, with just a few nearby nodes checking a few transactions and keeping short records.
  • Ditto bunching, each day’s records start from zero and bunch is finished and locked at end of day.
  • Cellular structure allows sojourn time for signalling to be kept low with potentially low periods for verification and checking. Will scale well with improving processing speed, less limited by signal propagation time than non-cellular chains.
  • Global all-time record is still complete, duplicated, distributed, but signalling for new transactions always starts light and local every new day.
  • Cellular approach allows easy re-use of globally authenticated tokens within each cell. This limits cost of token production.
  • Cells may be either geographic or logical/virtual. Virtual cells can be geographically global (at penalty of slower comms), but since each is independent until the end of the day, virtual cell speed will not affect local cell speed.
  • Protocols can be different for different cells, allowing cells with higher value transactions to use tighter security.

Associated mechanisms

  • Inter-cell transactions can be implemented easily by using logical/virtual cell that includes both parties. Users may need to be registered for access to multiple cells. If value is being transferred, it is easy to arrange clearing of local cell first (1 minute overhead) and then check currency hasn’t already been spent before allowing transaction on another cell.
  • Grapes are self-contained and data is held locally, duplicated among several stamens. Once sealed for the day, the grape data remains in place, signed off with the appropriate grape signature and the bunch signature verifies it with an extra lock that prevents even a future local majority from being able to tamper with it later. To preserve data in the very long-term against O/S changes, company failure etc, subsequent certified copies may be distributed and kept updated.
  • Signalling during the day can be based on ANT (autonomous network telepher) protocols. These use a strictly limited variety of ANT species that are authenticated and shared at the start of a period (a day or a week perhaps), using period lifetime encryption keys. Level of encryption is determined by ensuring that period is much smaller than the estimated time to crack on current hardware at reasonable cost. All messages use this encryption and ANT mechanisms therefore chances of infiltration or fraudulent transaction is very low so associated signalling and time overhead costs are kept low.
  • ANTs may include transaction descriptor packets, signature distribution packets, new key distribution packets, active (executable code) packets, new member verification packets, software distribution, other admin data, performance maintenance packets such as load distribution, RPCs and many others. Overall, perhaps 64 possible ANT species may be allowed at any one time. This facility makes the system ideal for secure OS and software distribution/maintenance.

Financial use

  • ANTs can contain currency to make valuable packets, or an ANT variant could actually be currency.
  • Optional coins could be made for privacy, otherwise transactions would use real world accounts. A coin-based system can be implemented simply by using the grape signature and coin number. Coins could be faked by decrypting the signature but that signature only lasts one period so by then they will be invalid. Remember, encryption level is set according to cost to decrypt during a period. Coins are globally unique due to different cells having different signatures. Once grapes are sealed no tampering is possible.
  • One mechanism is that coins are used as temporary currency that only lasts one period. Coins are bought using any currency immediately before transactions. At end of day, coins are converted back to desired currency. Any profits/losses due to conversion differences during day accrue to user at point of conversion.
  • A lingering cybercurrency can be made that renews its value to live longer than one period. It simply needs conversion to a new coin at the start of the new day, relying on signature security and short longevity to protect.
  • ANTs can alternatively carry real currency value by direct connection to any account. At end of each growth stage or end of day, transaction clearing debits and deposits in each respective account accordingly.
  • Transaction fees can be implemented easily and simply debited at either or both ends.
  • No expensive PoW is needed. Wasteful mining and PoW activity is unnecessary. Entire system relies only on using encryption signatures that are valid for shorter times than their cost-effective decryption times. Tamper-resistance avoids decryption of earlier signatures being useful.

With thanks to my good friend Prof Nick Colosimo for letting me bounce the ideas off him.

Biomimetic insights for machine consciousness

About 20 years ago I gave my first talk on how to achieve consciousness in machines, at a World Future Society conference, and went on to discuss how we would co-evolve with machines. I’ve lectured on machine consciousness hundreds of times but never produced any clear slides that explain my ideas properly. I thought it was about time I did. My belief is that today’s deep neural networks using feed-forward processing with back propagation training can not become conscious. No digital algorithmic neural network can, even though they can certainly produce extremely good levels of artificial intelligence. By contrast, nature also uses neurons but does produce conscious machines such as humans easily. I think the key difference is not just that nature uses analog adaptive neural nets rather than digital processing (as I believe Hans Moravec first insighted, a view that I readily accepted) but also that nature uses large groups of these analog neurons that incorporate feedback loops that act both as a sort of short term memory and provide time to sense the sensing process as it happens, a mechanism that can explain consciousness. That feedback is critically important in the emergence of consciousness IMHO. I believe that if the neural network AI people stop barking up the barren back-prop tree and start climbing the feedback tree, we could have conscious machines in no time, but Moravec is still probably right that these need to be analog to enable true real-time processing as opposed to simulation of that.

I may be talking nonsense of course, but here are my thoughts, finally explained as simply and clearly as I can. These slides illustrate only the simplest forms of consciousness. Obviously our brains are highly complex and evolved many higher level architectures, control systems, complex senses and communication, but I think the basic foundations of biomimetic machine consciousness can be achieved as follows:

That’s it. I might produce some more slides on higher level processing such as how concepts might emerge, and why in the long term, AIs will have to become hive minds. But they can wait for later blogs.

Self-driving bicycles

I just saw a video of a Google self-driving bike on Linked-In. It is a 2017 April Fool prank, but that just means it is fake in this instance, it doesn’t mean it couldn’t be done in real life. It is fun to watch anyway.

In 2005 I invented a solution for pulling bikes along on linear induction motor bile lanes, pulling a metal plate attached (via a hinged rod to prevent accidents) to the front forks.

The original idea was simply that the bike would be pulled along, but it would still need a rider to balance it. However, with a fairly small modification, it could self balance. All it needs is to use plates on both sides, so that the magnetic force can be varied to pull one side more than the other. If the force is instantly variable, that could be used in a simple control system both to keep the bike vertical when going straight and to steer it round bends as required, as illustrated on the right of the diagram. Therefore the bike could be self-driving.

Self-driving bikes would be good for lazy riders who don’t even want the effort of steering, but their auto-routing capability would also help any rider who simply wants navigation service, and presumably some riders with disabilities that make balancing difficult, and of course the propulsion is potentially welcome for any cyclist who doesn’t want to arrive sweaty or who is tiring of a long hill. Best of all, the bikes could find their own way to a bike park when not needed, balancing the numbers of available bikes according to local demand at any time.