Category Archives: magnetism

Quantum rack and pinion drive for interstellar travel

This idea from a few weeks back is actually a re-hash of ones that are already known, but that seems the norm for space stuff anyway, and it gives alternative modus operandi for one that NASA is playing with at the moment, so I’ll write it anyway. My brain has gotten rather fixated on space stuff of late, I blame Nick Colosimo who helped me develop the Pythagoras Sling. It’s still most definitely futurology so it belongs on my blog. You won’t see it in operation for a while.

A few railways use a rack and pinion mechanism to climb steep slopes. Usually they are trains that go up a mountainside, where presumably friction of a steel wheel on a steel rail isn’t enough to prevent slipping. Gears give much better traction. It seems to me that we could do that in space too. Imagine if such a train carries the track, lays it out in front of it, and then travels along it while getting the next piece ready. That’s the idea here too, except that the track is quantized space and the gear engaging on it is another basic physics effect chosen to give a minimum energy state when aligned with the appropriate quantum states on the track. It doesn’t really matter what kind of interaction is used as long as it is quantized, and most physics fields and forces are.

Fortunately, since most future physics will be discovered and consequential engineering implemented by AI, and even worse, much will only be understood by AI, AI will do most of the design here and I as a futurist can duck most of the big questions like “how will you actually do it then?” and just let the future computers sort it out. We have plenty of time, we’re not going anywhere far away any time soon.

An electric motor in your washing machine typically has a lot of copper coils that produce a strong magnetic field when electricity is fed through them, and those fields try to force the rotor into a position that is closest to another adjacent set of magnets in the casing. This is a minimum energy state, kind of like a ball rolling into the bottom of a valley. Before it gets a chance to settle there, the electric current is fed  into the next section of coil so the magnetic field changes and the rotor is no longer comfy and instead wants to move to the next orientation. It never gets a chance to settle since the magnet it wants to cosy up with always changes its mind just in time for the next one to look sexy.

Empty space like you find between stars has very little matter in it, but it will still have waves travelling through it, such as light, radio waves, or x-rays, and it will still be exposed to gravitational and electromagnetic forces from all directions. Some scientists also talk of dark energy, a modern equivalent of magic as far as I can tell, or at best the ether. I don’t think scientists in 2050 will still talk of dark energy except as an historic scientific relic. The many fields at a point of space are quantized, that is, they can only have certain values. They are in one state or the next one but they can’t be in between. All we need for our quantum rack and pinion to work is a means to impose a field onto the nearby space so that our quantum gear can interact with it just like our rotor in its electrical casing.

The most obvious way to do that is to use a strong electromagnetic field. Why? Well, we know how to do that, we use electrics, electronics and radio and lasers and such all the time. The other fields we know of are out of our reach and likely to remain so for decades or centuries, i.e. strong and weak forces and gravity. We know about them, and can make good use of them but we can’t yet engineer  with them. We can’t even do anti-gravity yet. AI might fix that, but not yet.

If we generate a strong oscillating EM field in front of our space ship, it would impose a convenient quantum structure on nearby space. Another EM field slightly out of alignment should create a force pulling them into alignment just like it does for our washing machine motor. That will be harder than it sounds due to EM fields moving at light speed, relativity and all that stuff. It would need the right pulse design and phasing, and accurate synchronization of phase differences too. We have many devices that can generate high frequency EM waves, such as lasers and microwaves, and microwaves particularly interact well with metals, generating eddy currents that produce large magnetic forces. Therefore, clever design should be able to make a motor that generates microwaves as the rack and the metal shell of the microwave containment should then be able to act as the pinion.

Or engineers could do it accidentally (and that happens more often than you’d like to believe). You’ve probably already heard of the EM drive that has NASA all excited.

It produces microwaves that bounce around in a funnel-shaped cavity and experiments do seem to indicate that it produces measurable thrust. NASA thinks it works by asymmetric forces caused by the shape of their motor. I beg to differ. The explanation is important because you need to know how something works if you want to get the most from it.

I think their EM drive works as a quantum rack and pinion device as I’ve described. I think the microwaves impose the quantum structure and phase differences caused by the shape accidentally interact and create a very inefficient thruster which would be a hell of a lot better if they phase their fields correctly. When NASA realizes that, and starts designing it with that theoretical base then they’ll be able to adjust the beam frequencies and phases and the shape of the cavity to optimize the result, and they’ll get far greater force.

If you don’t like my theory, another one has since come to light that is also along similar lines, Pilot Wave theory:

It may well all be the same idea, just explained from different angles and experiences. If it works, and if we can make it better, then we may well have a mechanism that can realistically take us to the stars. That is something we should all hope for.


Instant buildings: Kinetic architecture

Revisiting an idea I raised in a blog in July last year. Even I think it was badly written so it’s worth a second shot.

Construction techniques are diverse and will get diverser. Just as we’re getting used to seeing robotic bricklaying and 3D printed walls, another technique is coming over the horizon that will build so fast I call it kinetic architecture. The structure will be built so quickly it can build a bridge from one side just by building upwards at an angle, and the structure will span the gap and meet the ground at the other side before gravity has a chance to collapse it.

The key to such architecture is electromagnetic propulsion, the same as on the Japanese bullet trains or the Hyperloop, using magnetic forces caused by electric currents to propel the next piece along the existing structure to the front end where it acts as part of the path for the next. Adding pieces quickly enough leads to structures that can follow elegant paths, as if the structure is a permanent trace of the path an object would have followed if it were catapulted into the air and falling due to gravity. It could be used for buildings, bridges, or simply art.

It will become possible thanks to new materials such as graphene and other carbon composites using nanotubes. Graphene combines extreme strength, hence lightness for a particular strength requirement, with extreme conductivity, allowing it to carry very high electric currents, and therefore able to generate high magnetic forces. It is a perfect material for kinetic architecture. Pieces would have graphene electromagnet circuitry printed on their surface. Suitable circuit design would mean that every extra piece falling into place becomes an extension to the magnetic railway transporting the next piece. Just as railroads may be laid out just in front of the train using pieces carried by the train, so pieces shot into the air provide a self-building path for other pieces to follow. A building skeleton could be erected in seconds. I mentioned in my original blog (about carbethium) that this could be used to create the sort of light bridges we see in Halo. A kinetic architecture skeleton would be shot across the divide and the filler pieces in between quickly transported into place along the skeleton and assembled.

See The electronic circuitry potential for graphene also allows for generating plasma or simply powering LEDs to give a nice glow just like the light bridges too.

Apart from clever circuit design, kinetic architecture also requires pieces that can interlock. The kinetic energy of the new piece arriving at the front edge would ideally be sufficient to rotate it into place, interlocking with previous front edge. 3d interlocking is tricky but additional circuitry can provide additional magnetic forces to rotate and translate pieces if kinetic energy alone isn’t enough. The key is that once interlocked, the top surface has to form a smooth continuous line with the previous one, so that pieces can move along smoothly. Hooks can catch an upcoming piece to make it rotate, with the hooks merging nicely with part of the new piece as it falls into place, making those hooks part of a now smooth surface and a new hook at the new front end. You’ll have to imagine it yourself, I can’t draw it. Obviously, pieces would need precision engineering because they’d need to fit precisely to give the required strength and fit.

Ideally, with sufficiently well-designed pieces, it should be possible to dismantle the structure by reversing the build process, unlocking each end piece in turn and transporting it back to base along the structure until no structure remains.

I can imagine such techniques being used at first for artistic creations, sculptures using beautiful parabolic arcs. But they could also be used for rapid assembly for emergency buildings, instant evacuation routes for tall buildings, or to make temporary bridges after an earthquake destroyed a permanent one. When a replacement has been made, the temporary one could be rolled back up and used elsewhere. Maybe it could become routine for making temporary structures that are needed quickly such as for pop concerts and festivals. One day it could become an everyday building technique. 

Sky-lines – The Solar Powered Future of Air Travel

High altitude solar array to power IT and propel planes

High altitude solar array to power IT and propel planes

A zero carbon air travel solution. Well, most of the bits would be made of carbon materials, but it wouldn’t emit any CO2.

The pic says it all. A linear solar farm suspended in the high atmosphere to provide an IT platform for sensors, comms and other functions often accomplished by low orbit satellite. It would float up there thanks to being fixed to a graphene foam base layer that can be made lighter than helium (my previous invention, see which has since been prototyped and proven to be extremely resilient to high pressures too). Ideally, it would go all the way around the world, in various inclinations at different altitudes to provide routes to many places. Carbon materials are also incredibly strong so the line can be made as strong as can reasonably be required.

The flotation layer also supports a hypersonic linear induction motor that could provide direct propulsion to a hypersonic glider or to electric fans on a powered plane. Obviously this could also provide a means of making extremely low earth orbit satellites that continuously circumnavigate the ring.

I know you’re asking already how the planes get up there. There are a few solutions. Tethers could come all the way to ground level to airports, and electric engines would be used to get to height where the plane would pick up a sled-link.

Alternatively, stronger links to the ground would allow planes to be pulled up by sleds, though this would likely be less feasible.

Power levels? Well, the engines on a Boeing 777 generate about 8.25MW. A high altitude solar cell, above clouds could generate 300W per square metre. So a 777 equivalent plane needs 55km of panels if the line is just one metre wide. That means planes need to be at least that distance apart, but since that equates to around a minute, that is no barrier at all.

If you still doubt this, the Hyperloop was just a crazy idea a century ago too.

Carbethium, a better-than-scifi material

How to build one of these for real:


Halo light bridge, from

Or indeed one of these:



I recently tweeted that I had an idea how to make the glowy bridges and shields we’ve seen routinely in sci-fi games from Half Life to Destiny, the bridges that seem to appear in a second or two from nothing across a divide, yet are strong enough to drive tanks over, and able to vanish as quickly and completely when they are switched off. I woke today realizing that with a bit of work, that it could be the basis of a general purpose material to make the tanks too, and buildings and construction platforms, bridges, roads and driverless pod systems, personal shields and city defense domes, force fields, drones, planes and gliders, space elevator bases, clothes, sports tracks, robotics, and of course assorted weapons and weapon systems. The material would only appear as needed and could be fully programmable. It could even be used to render buildings from VR to real life in seconds, enabling at least some holodeck functionality. All of this is feasible by 2050.

Since it would be as ethereal as those Halo structures, I first wanted to call the material ethereum, but that name was already taken (for a 2014 block-chain programming platform, which I note could be used to build the smart ANTS network management system that Chris Winter and I developed in BT in 1993), and this new material would be a programmable construction platform so the names would conflict, and etherium is too close. Ethium might work, but it would be based on graphene and carbon nanotubes, and I am quite into carbon so I chose carbethium.

Ages ago I blogged about plasma as a 21st Century building material. I’m still not certain this is feasible, but it may be, and it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this blog anyway.

Around then I also blogged how to make free-floating battle drones and more recently how to make a Star Wars light-saber.

Carbethium would use some of the same principles but would add the enormous strength and high conductivity of graphene to provide the physical properties to make a proper construction material. The programmable matter bits and the instant build would use a combination of 3D interlocking plates, linear induction,  and magnetic wells. A plane such as a light bridge or a light shield would extend from a node in caterpillar track form with plates added as needed until the structure is complete. By reversing the build process, it could withdraw into the node. Bridges that only exist when they are needed would be good fun and we could have them by 2050 as well as the light shields and the light swords, and light tanks.

The last bit worries me. The ethics of carbethium are the typical mixture of enormous potential good and huge potential for abuse to bring death and destruction that we’re learning to expect of the future.

If we can make free-floating battle drones, tanks, robots, planes and rail-gun plasma weapons all appear within seconds, if we can build military bases and erect shield domes around them within seconds, then warfare moves into a new realm. Those countries that develop this stuff first will have a huge advantage, with the ability to send autonomous robotic armies to defeat enemies with little or no risk to their own people. If developed by a James Bond super-villain on a hidden island, it would even be the sort of thing that would enable a serious bid to take over the world.

But in the words of Professor Emmett Brown, “well, I figured, what the hell?”. 2050 values are not 2016 values. Our value set is already on a random walk, disconnected from any anchor, its future direction indicated by a combination of current momentum and a chaos engine linking to random utterances of arbitrary celebrities on social media. 2050 morality on many issues will be the inverse of today’s, just as today’s is on many issues the inverse of the 1970s’. Whatever you do or however politically correct you might think you are today, you will be an outcast before you get old:

We’re already fucked, carbethium just adds some style.

Graphene combines huge tensile strength with enormous electrical conductivity. A plate can be added to the edge of an existing plate and interlocked, I imagine in a hexagonal or triangular mesh. Plates can be designed in many diverse ways to interlock, so that rotating one engages with the next, and reversing the rotation unlocks them. Plates can be pushed to the forward edge by magnetic wells, using linear induction motors, using the graphene itself as the conductor to generate the magnetic field and the design of the structure of the graphene threads enabling the linear induction fields. That would likely require that the structure forms first out of graphene threads, then the gaps between filled by mesh, and plates added to that to make the structure finally solid. This would happen in thickness as well as width, to make a 3D structure, though a graphene bridge would only need to be dozens of atoms thick.

So a bridge made of graphene could start with a single thread, which could be shot across a gap at hundreds of meters per second. I explained how to make a Spiderman-style silk thrower to do just that in a previous blog:

The mesh and 3D build would all follow from that. In theory that could all happen in seconds, the supply of plates and the available power being the primary limiting factors.

Similarly, a shield or indeed any kind of plate could be made by extending carbon mesh out from the edge or center and infilling. We see that kind of technique used often in sci-fi to generate armor, from lost in Space to Iron Man.

The key components in carbetheum are 3D interlocking plate design and magnetic field design for the linear induction motors. Interlocking via rotation is fairly easy in 2D, any spiral will work, and the 3rd dimension is open to any building block manufacturer. 3D interlocking structures are very diverse and often innovative, and some would be more suited to particular applications than others. As for linear induction motors, a circuit is needed to produce the travelling magnetic well, but that circuit is made of the actual construction material. The front edge link between two wires creates a forward-facing magnetic field to propel the next plates and convey enough intertia to them to enable kinetic interlocks.

So it is feasible, and only needs some engineering. The main barrier is price and material quality. Graphene is still expensive to make, as are carbon nanotubes, so we won’t see bridges made of them just yet. The material quality so far is fine for small scale devices, but not yet for major civil engineering.

However, the field is developing extremely quickly because big companies and investors can clearly see the megabucks at the end of the rainbow. We will have almost certainly have large quantity production of high quality graphene for civil engineering by 2050.

This field will be fun. Anyone who plays computer games is already familiar with the idea. Light bridges and shields, or light swords would appear much as in games, but the material would likely  be graphene and nanotubes (or maybe the newfangled molybdenum equivalents). They would glow during construction with the plasma generated by the intense electric and magnetic fields, and the glow would be needed afterward to make these ultra-thin physical barriers clearly visible,but they might become highly transparent otherwise.

Assembling structures as they are needed and disassembling them just as easily will be very resource-friendly, though it is unlikely that carbon will be in short supply. We can just use some oil or coal to get more if needed, or process some CO2. The walls of a building could be grown from the ground up at hundreds of meters per second in theory, with floors growing almost as fast, though there should be little need to do so in practice, apart from pushing space vehicles up so high that they need little fuel to enter orbit. Nevertheless, growing a  building and then even growing the internal structures and even furniture is feasible, all using glowy carbetheum. Electronic soft fabrics, cushions and hard surfaces and support structures are all possible by combining carbon nanotubes and graphene and using the reconfigurable matter properties carbethium convents. So are visual interfaces, electronic windows, electronic wallpaper, electronic carpet, computers, storage, heating, lighting, energy storage and even solar power panels. So is all the comms and IoT and all the smart embdedded control systems you could ever want. So you’d use a computer with VR interface to design whatever kind of building and interior furniture decor you want, and then when you hit the big red button, it would appear in front of your eyes from the carbethium blocks you had delivered. You could also build robots using the same self-assembly approach.

If these structures can assemble fast enough, and I think they could, then a new form of kinetic architecture would appear. This would use the momentum of the construction material to drive the front edges of the surfaces, kinetic assembly allowing otherwise impossible and elaborate arches to be made.

A city transport infrastructure could be built entirely out of carbethium. The linear induction mats could grow along a road, connecting quickly to make a whole city grid. Circuit design allows the infrastructure to steer driverless pods wherever they need to go, and they could also be assembled as required using carbethium. No parking or storage is needed, as the pod would just melt away onto the surface when it isn’t needed.

I could go to town on military and terrorist applications, but more interesting is the use of the defense domes. When I was a kid, I imagined having a house with a defense dome over it. Lots of sci-fi has them now too. Domes have a strong appeal, even though they could also be used as prisons of course. A supply of carbetheum on the city edges could be used to grow a strong dome in minutes or even seconds, and there is no practical limit to how strong it could be. Even if lasers were used to penetrate it, the holes could fill in in real time, replacing material as fast as it is evaporated away.

Anyway, lots of fun. Today’s civil engineering projects like HS2 look more and more primitive by the day, as we finally start to see the true potential of genuinely 21st century construction materials. 2050 is not too early to expect widespread use of carbetheum. It won’t be called that – whoever commercializes it first will name it, or Google or MIT will claim to have just invented it in a decade or so, so my own name for it will be lost to personal history. But remember, you saw it here first.

The future of vacuum cleaners

Dyson seems pretty good in vacuum cleaners and may well have tried this and found it doesn’t work, but then again, sometimes people in an industry can’t see the woods for the trees so who knows, there may be something in this:

Our new pet cat Jess, loves to pick up soft balls with a claw and throw them, and catch them again. Retractable claws are very effective.IMG_6689- Jess (2)

Jess the cat

At a smaller scale, velcro uses tiny little hooks to stick together, copying burs from nature.

Suppose you make a tiny little ball that has even tinier little retractable spines or even better, hooks. And suppose you make them by the trillion and make a powder that your vacuum cleaner attachment first sprinkles onto a carpet, then agitates furiously and quickly, and thus gets the hooks to stick to dirt, pull it off the surface and retract (so that the balls don’t stick to the carpet) and then you suck the whole lot into the machine. Since the balls have a certain defined specification, they are easy to separate from the dirt and dust and reuse again straight away. So you get superior cleaning. Some of the balls would be lost each time, and some would get sucked up next time, but overall you’d need to periodically top up the reservoir.

The current approach is to beat the hell out of the carpet fibers with a spinning brush and that works fine, but I think adding the active powder might be better because it gets right in among the dirt and drags it kicking and screaming off the fibers.

So, ball design. Firstly, it doesn’t need to be ball shaped at all, and secondly it doesn’t need spines really, just to be able to rapidly change its shape so it gets some sort of temporary traction on a dirt particle to knock it off. What we need here is any structure that expands and contracts or dramatically changes shape when a force is applied, ideally resonantly. Two or three particles connected by a tether would move back and forwards under an oscillating electrostatic, electrical or magnetic field or even an acoustic wave. There are billions of ways of doing that and some would be cheaper than others to manufacture in large quantity. Chemists are brilliant at designing custom molecules with particular shapes, and biology has done that with zillions of enzymes too. Our balls would be pretty small but more micro-tech than nano-tech or molecular tech.

The vacuum cleaner attachment would thus spray this stuff onto the carpet and start resonating it with an EM field or sound waves. The little particles would wildly thrash around doing their micro-cleaning, yanking dirt free, and then they would be sucked back into the cleaner to be used again. The cleaner head doesn’t even need to have a spinning brush, the only moving parts would be the powder, though having an agitating brush might help get them deeper into the fabric I guess.


The future of mind control headbands

Have you ever wanted to control millions of other people as your own personal slaves or army? How about somehow persuading lots of people to wear mind control headbands, that you control? Once they are wearing them, you can use them as your slaves, army or whatever. And you could put them into offline mode in between so they don’t cause trouble.

Amazingly, this might be feasible. It just requires a little marketing to fool them into accepting a device with extra capabilities that serve the seller rather than the buyer. Lots of big companies do that bit all the time. They get you to pay handsomely for something such as a smartphone and then they use it to monitor your preferences and behavior and then sell the data to advertisers to earn even more. So we just need a similar means of getting you to buy and wear a nice headband that can then be used to control your mind, using a confusingly worded clause hidden on page 325 of the small print.

I did some googling about TMS- trans-cranial magnetic stimulation, which can produce some interesting effects in the brain by using magnetic coils to generate strong magnetic fields to create electrical currents in specific parts of your brain without needing to insert probes. Claimed effects vary from reducing inhibitions, pain control, activating muscles, assisting learning, but that is just today, it will be far easier to get the right field shapes and strengths in the future, so the range of effects will increase dramatically. While doing so, I also discovered numerous pages about producing religious experiences via magnetic fields too. I also recalled an earlier blog I wrote a couple of year ago about switching people off, which relied on applying high frequency stimulation to the claustrum region.

The source I cited for that is still online:

So… suppose you make a nice headband that helps people get in touch with their spiritual side. The time is certainly right. Millennials apparently believe in the afterlife far more than older generations, but they don’t believe in gods. They are begging for nice vague spiritual experiences that fit nicely into their safe spaces mentality, that are disconnected from anything specific that might offend someone or appropriate someone’s culture, that bring universal peace and love feelings without the difficult bits of having to actually believe in something or follow some sort of behavioral code. This headband will help them feel at one with the universe, and with other people, to be effortlessly part of a universal human collective, to share the feeling of belonging and truth. You know as well as I do that anyone could get millions of millennials or lefties to wear such a thing. The headband needs some magnetic coils and field shaping/steering technology. Today TMS uses old tech such as metal wires, tomorrow they will use graphene to get far more current and much better fields, and they will use nice IoT biotech feedback loops to monitor thoughts emotions and feelings to create just the right sorts of sensations. A 2030 headband will be able to create high strength fields in almost any part of the brain, creating the means for stimulation, emotional generation, accentuation or attenuation, muscle control, memory recall and a wide variety of other capabilities. So zillions of people will want one and happily wear it.  All the joys of spirituality without the terrorism or awkward dogma. It will probably work well with a range of legal or semi-legal smart drugs to make experiences even more rich. There might be a range of apps that work with them too, and you might have a sideline in a company supplying some of them.

And thanks to clause P325e paragraph 2, the headband will also be able to switch people off. And while they are switched off, unconscious, it will be able to use them as robots, walking them around and making them do stuff. When they wake up, they won’t remember anything about it so they won’t mind. If they have done nothing wrong, they have nothing to fear, and they are nor responsible for what someone else does using their body.

You could rent out some of your unconscious people as living statues or art-works or mannequins or ornaments. You could make shows with them, synchronised dances. Or demonstrations or marches, or maybe you could invade somewhere. Or get them all to turn up and vote for you at the election.  Or any of 1000 mass mind control dystopian acts. Or just get them to bow down and worship you. After all, you’re worth it, right? Or maybe you could get them doing nice things, your choice.


How to make a Star Wars light saber

A couple of years ago I explained how to make a free-floating combat drone: , like the ones in Halo or Mass Effect. They could realistically be made in the next couple of decades and are very likely to feature heavily in far future warfare, or indeed terrorism. I was chatting to a journalist this morning about light sabers, another sci-fi classic. They could also be made in the next few decades, using derivatives of the same principles. A prototype is feasible this side of 2050.

I’ll ignore the sci-fi wikis that explain how they are meant to work, which mostly approximate to fancy words for using magic or The Force and various fictional crystals. On the other hand, we still want something that will look and sound and behave like the light saber.

The handle bit is pretty obvious. It has to look good and contain a power source and either a powerful laser or plasma generator. The traditional problem with using a laser-based saber is that the saber is only meant to be a metre long but laser beams don’t generally stop until they hit something. Plasma on the other hand is difficult to contain and needs a lot of energy even when it isn’t being used to strike your opponent. A laser can be switched on and off and is therefore better. But we can have some nice glowy plasma too, just for fun.

The idea is pretty simple then. The blade would be made of graphene flakes coated with carbon nanotube electron pipes, suspended using the same technique I outlined in the blog above. These could easily be made to form a long cylinder and when you want the traditional Star Wars look, they would move about a bit, giving the nice shimmery blurry edge we all like so that the tube looks just right with blurry glowy edges. Anyway, with the electron pipe surface facing inwards, these flakes would generate the internal plasma and its nice glow. They would self-organize their cylinder continuously to follow the path of the saber. Easy-peasy. If they strike something, they would just re-organize themselves into the cylinder again once they are free.

For later models, a Katana shaped blade will obviously be preferred. As we know, all ultimate weapons end up looking like a Katana, so we might as well go straight to it, and have the traditional cylindrical light saber blade as an optional cosmetic envelope for show fights. The Katana is a universal physics result in all possible universes.

The hum could be generated by a speaker in the handle if you have absolutely no sense of style, but for everyone else, you could simply activate pulsed magnetic fields between the flakes so that they resonate at the required band to give your particular tone. Graphene flakes can be magnetized so again this is perfectly consistent with physics. You could download and customize hums from the cloud.

Now the fun bit. When the blade gets close to an object, such as your opponent’s arm, or your loaf of bread in need of being sliced, the capacitance of the outer flakes would change, and anyway, they could easily transmit infrared light in every direction and pick up reflections. It doesn’t really matter which method you pick to detect the right moment to activate the laser, the point is that this bit would be easy engineering and with lots of techniques to pick from, there could be a range of light sabers on offer. Importantly, at least a few techniques could work that don’t violate any physics. Next, some of those self-organizing graphene flakes would have reflective surface backings (metals bond well with graphene so this is also a doddle allowed by physics), and would therefore form a nice reflecting surface to deflect the laser beam at the object about to be struck. If a few flakes are vaporized, others would be right behind them to reflect the beam.

So just as the blade strikes the surface of the target, the powerful laser switches on and the beam is bounced off the reflecting flakes onto the target, vaporizing it and cauterizing the ends of the severed blood vessels to avoid unnecessary mess that might cause a risk of slipping. The shape of the beam depends on the locations and angles of the reflecting surface flakes, and they could be in pretty much any shape to create any shape of beam needed, which could be anything from a sharp knife to a single point, severing an arm or drilling a nice neat hole through the heart. Obviously, style dictates that the point of the saber is used for a narrow beam and the edge is used as a knife, also useful for cutting bread or making toast (the latter uses transverse laser deflection at lower aggregate power density to char rather than vaporize the bread particles, and toast is an option selectable by a dial on the handle).

What about fights? When two of these blades hit each other there would be a variety of possible effects. Again, it would come down to personal style. There is no need to have any feel at all, the beams could simple go through each other, but where’s the fun in that? Far better that the flakes also carry high electric currents so they could create a nice flurry of sparks and the magnetic interactions between the sabers could also be very powerful. Again, self organisation would allow circuits to form to carry the currents at the right locations to deflect or disrupt the opponent’s saber. A galactic treaty would be needed to ensure that everyone fights by the rules and doesn’t cheat by having an ethereal saber that just goes right through the other one without any nice show. War without glory is nothing, and there can be no glory without a strong emotional investment and physical struggle mediated by magnetic interactions in the sabers.

This saber would have a very nice glow in any color you like, but not have a solid blade, so would look and feel very like the Star Wars saber (when you just want to touch it, the lasers would not activate to slice your fingers off, provided you have read the safety instructions and have the safety lock engaged). The blade could also grow elegantly from the hilt when it is activated, over a second or so, it would not just suddenly appear at full length. We need an on/off button for that bit, but that could simply be emotion or thought recognition so it turns on when you concentrate on The Force, or just feel it.

The power supply could be a battery or graphene capacitor bank of a couple of containers of nice chemicals if you want to build it before we can harness The Force and magic crystals.

A light saber that looks, feels and behaves just like the ones on Star Wars is therefore entirely feasible, consistent with physics, and could be built before 2050. It might use different techniques than I have described, but if no better techniques are invented, we could still do it the way I describe above. One way or another, we will have light sabers.


Fusions needs jet engine architecture, not JET

Warning: some or all of what you will read here might be nonsense, but hey, faint heart ne’er won fair maid.

Lockheed Martin are in the news with yet another claim of a fusion breakthrough. It looks exciting, but some physicists are already claiming that it won’t work. I haven’t done the sums so I don’t have a sensible opinion on it. I am filing it mentally with all the other frequently claimed breakthroughs and will wait and see, not holding my breath. I really hope they succeed though. If they don’t, then their claim is just hot air, and if they can do that, then why can’t I? So here is how I would do the easy bits of the top level design, leaving the hard sums to others.

Joint European Torus = JET, and the new Lockheed Martin approach is meant to be about the same size as a jet engine. I couldn’t help making the obvious mental leap. Long ago, plane engines used internal combustion engines and propellers. The along came 40-year-old Frank Whittle and changed the world with his jet engine invention:

Whittle and his jet engine

Picture copyright Popperfoto

Smart bunny!

Standing on his (and Rutherford’s) shoulders, I had to ask whether we can’t use a jet engine arrangement to harness fusion. We don’t need the propulsion, just the ejected products to extract heat from, fairly conventionally. As lazy as researchers can be these days, I typed ‘jet engine fusion’ into google images. Way down the page was one that I thought had already used the idea, as a spaceship propulsion system, but bringing up the page, it doesn’t, it just uses a pretty conventional reaction chamber and ejects the fusion products out through a nozzle to provide propulsion force.

So either the idea is so obviously flawed that nobody has even bothered to investigate it far enough to bother making graphics, or a major case of group-think has affected the entire physicist community. Bit of a gamble proceeding then, but, if you have a few billion to gamble, here’s how to do fusion:

Jet style nuclear fusion process

Jet style nuclear fusion process

Intake a continuous stream of deuterium and tritium. Note for those people who want to believe everyone except them is a moron: I am not actually a moron, I have a Physics degree and specialised in the nuclear options. I do know you only need a tiny bit. The pic shows a jet engine but it is the compression stage idea I want, not the scale, fusion needs very small quantities of material, so the compressor would look nothing like this, it is just to get the point across that the jet principle is a good one. 

Compress it (using some of the energy from the fusion process)  and optionally heat  or compress it conventionally to reduce energy deficit in final stage.

Feed it into the narrow reaction pathway, which is a strongly confined tunnel surrounded by an Archimedes screw of high intensity lasers.

Generate continuous heating via lasers as the plasma passes along the reaction pathway (using some of the energy from the process) until fusion finally occurs in the short fusion zone.

Allow hot fused products to expand in an expansion chamber

Pass through suitable heat exchanger to make steam/molted sodium or whatever takes your fancy.

Feed some of the energy harvested to drive compressors, heaters, and obviously the lasers. Very possibly some of the products might be useful feedstock for production of lasing medium.

Bob’s your uncle.

OK, the intake and compression bits are quite jet enginy, and using some of the energy produced to power the earlier stages is very jet enginy. We don’t have any burning of gases so it isn’t quite the same. But in the interests of extracting as much from Whittle as possible, I kept it nice and circular with as few components as possible in the way, arranging the lasers in a continuous spiral (inspired by the Archimedes screw), so that the plasma heats up as it passes through them until it starts to fuse. There is no actual screw, its just that if all the lasers are mounted and directed towards the plasma jet as it heats, the external arrangement would look very similar, and the effect would be that the temperature and proximity to fusing would rise as the plasma passes through it.  You still need serious magnetic confinement to prevent the plasma touching the walls, but there is nothing physical in the path to touch, just magnetic fields and lots of laser beam.

I can’t see any immediate reasons why it couldn’t work, and it offers some definite advantages over a torus approach or exploding pellets. It takes ideas from all the other approaches so it isn’t really new, just a rearrangement.

Doesn’t Lockheed Martin make jet engines too?

Ground up data is the next big data

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… I think.

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

The future of levitation

Futurologists are often asked about flying cars, and there already are one or two and one day there might be some, but they’ll probably only become as common as helicopters today. Levitating cars will be more common, and will hover just above the ground, like the landspeeders on Star Wars, or just above a lower layer of cars. I need to be careful here – hovercraft were supposed to be the future but they are hard to steer and to stop quickly and that is probably why they didn’t take over as some people expected. Levitating cars won’t work either if we can’t solve that problem.

Maglev trains have been around for decades. Levitating cars won’t use anti-gravity in my lifetime, so magnetic levitation is the only non-hovercraft means obvious. They don’t actually need metal roads to fly over, although that is one mechanism. It is possible to contain a cushion of plasma and ride on that. OK, it is a bit hovercrafty, since it uses a magnetic skirt to keep the plasma in place, but at least it won’t need big fans and drafts. The same technique could work for a skateboard too.

Once we have magnetic plasma levitation working properly, we can start making all sorts of floating objects. We’ll have lots of drones by then anyway, but drones could levitate using plasma instead of using rotor blades. With plasma levitation, compound objects can be formed using clusters of levitating component parts. This can be quieter and more elegant than messy air jets or rotors.

Magnetic levitation doesn’t have very many big advantages over using wheels, but it still seems futuristic, and sometimes that is reason enough to do it. More than almost anything else, levitating cars and skateboards would bring the unmistakable message that the future has arrived. So we may see the levitating robots and toys and transport that we have come to expect in sci-fi.

To do it, we need strong magnetic fields, but they can be produced by high electrical currents in graphene circuits. Plasma is easy enough to make too. Electron pipes could do that and could be readily applied as a coating to the underside of a car or any hard surface rather like paint. We can’t do that bit yet, but a couple of decades from now it may well be feasible. By then most new cars will be self-driving, and will drive very closely together, so the need to stop quickly or divert from a path can be more easily solved. One by one, the problems with making levitating vehicles will disappear and wheels may become obsolete. We still won’t have very many flying cars, but lots that float above the ground.

All in all, levitation has a future, just as we’ve been taught to expect by sci-fi.