Category Archives: materials

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.


The future of nylon: ladder-free hosiery

Last week I outlined the design for a 3D printer that can print and project graphene filaments at 100m/s. That was designed to be worn on the wrist like Spiderman’s, but an industrial version could print faster. When I checked a few of the figures, I discovered that the spinnerets for making nylon stockings run at around the same speed. That means that graphene stockings could be made at around the same speed. My print head produced 140 denier graphene yarn but it made that from many finer filaments so basically any yarn thickness from a dozen carbon atoms right up to 140 denier would be feasible.

The huge difference is that a 140 denier graphene thread is strong enough to support a man at 2g acceleration. 10 denier stockings are made from yarn that breaks quite easily, but unless I’ve gone badly wrong on the back of my envelope, 10 denier graphene would have roughly 10kg (22lb)breaking strain. That’s 150 times stronger than nylon yarn of the same thickness.

If so, then that would mean that a graphene stocking would have incredible strength. A pair of 10 denier graphene stockings or tights (pantyhose) might last for years without laddering. That might not be good news for the nylon stocking industry, but I feel confident they would adapt easily to such potential.

Alternatively, much finer yarns could be made that would still have reasonable ladder resistance, so that would also affect the visual appearance and texture. They could be made so fine that the fibers are invisible even up close. People might not always want that, but the key message is that wear-resistant, ladder free hosiery could be made that has any gauge from 0.1 denier to 140 denier.

There is also a bonus that graphene is a superb conductor. That means that graphene fibers could be woven into nylon hosiery to add circuits. Those circuits might be to harvest radio energy, act as an aerial, power LEDS in the hosiery or change its colors or patterns. So even if it isn’t used for the whole garment, it might still have important uses in the garment as an addition to the weave.

There is yet another bonus. Graphene circuits could allow electrical supply to shape changing polymers that act rather like muscles, contracting when a voltage is applied across them, so that a future pair of tights could shape a leg far better, with tensions and pressures electronically adjusted over the leg to create the perfect shape. Graphene can make electronic muscles directly too, but in a more complex mechanism (e.g. using magnetic field generation and interaction, or capacitors and electrical attraction/repulsion).

How to make a Spiderman-style graphene silk thrower for emergency services

I quite like Spiderman movies, and having the ability to fire a web at a distant object or villain has its appeal. Since he fires web from his forearm, it must be lightweight to withstand the recoil, and to fire enough to hold his weight while he swings, it would need to have extremely strong fibers. It is therefore pretty obvious that the material of choice when we build such a thing will be graphene, which is even stronger than spider silk (though I suppose a chemical ejection device making spider silk might work too). A thin graphene thread is sufficient to hold him as he swings so it could fit inside a manageable capsule.

So how to eject it?

One way I suggested for making graphene threads is to 3D print the graphene, using print nozzles made of carbon nanotubes and using a very high-speed modulation to spread the atoms at precise spacing so they emerge in the right physical patterns and attach appropriate positive or negative charge to each atom as they emerge from the nozzles so that they are thrown together to make them bond into graphene. This illustration tries to show the idea looking at the nozzles end on, but shows only a part of the array:printing graphene filamentsIt doesn’t show properly that the nozzles are at angles to each other and the atoms are ejected in precise phased patterns, but they need to be, since the atoms are too far apart to form graphene otherwise so they need to eject at the right speed in the right directions with the right charges at the right times and if all that is done correctly then a graphene filament would result. The nozzle arrangements, geometry and carbon atom sizes dictate that only narrow filaments of graphene can be produced by each nozzle, but as the threads from many nozzles are intertwined as they emerge from the spinneret, so a graphene thread would be produced made from many filaments. Nevertheless, it is possible to arrange carbon nanotubes in such a way and at the right angle, so provided we can get the high-speed modulation and spacing right, it ought to be feasible. Not easy, but possible. Then again, Spiderman isn’t real yet either.

The ejection device would therefore be a specially fabricated 3D print head maybe a square centimeter in area, backed by a capsule containing finely powdered graphite that could be vaporized to make the carbon atom stream through the nozzles. Some nice lasers might be good there, and some cool looking electronic add-ons to do the phasing and charging. You could make this into one heck of a cool gun.

How thick a thread do we need?

Assuming a 70kg (154lb) man and 2g acceleration during the swing, we need at least 150kg breaking strain to have a small safety margin, bearing in mind that if it breaks, you can fire a new thread. Steel can achieve that with 1.5mm thick wire, but graphene’s tensile strength is 300 times better than steel so 0.06mm is thick enough. 60 microns, or to put it another way, roughly 140 denier, although that is a very quick guess. That means roughly the same sort of graphene thread thickness is needed to support our Spiderman as the nylon used to make your backpack. It also means you could eject well over 10km of thread from a 200g capsule, plenty. Happy to revise my numbers if you have better ones. Google can be a pain!

How fast could the thread be ejected?

Let’s face it. If it can only manage 5cm/s, it is as much use as a chocolate flamethrower. Each bond in graphene is 1.4 angstroms long, so a graphene hexagon is about 0.2nm wide. We would want our graphene filament to eject at around 100m/s, about the speed of a crossbow bolt. 100m/s = 5 x 10^11 carbon atoms ejected per second from each nozzle, in staggered phasing. So, half a terahertz. Easy! That’s well within everyday electronics domains. Phew! If we can do better, we can shoot even faster.

We could therefore soon have a graphene filament ejection device that behaves much like Spiderman’s silk throwers. It needs some better engineers than me to build it, but there are plenty of them around.

Having such a device would be fun for sports, allowing climbers to climb vertical rock faces and overhangs quickly, or to make daring leaps and hope the device works to save them from certain death. It would also have military and police uses. It might even have uses in road accident prevention, yanking pedestrians away from danger or tethering cars instantly to slow them extra quickly. In fact, all the emergency services would have uses for such devices and it could reduce accidents and deaths. I feel confident that Spiderman would think of many more exciting uses too.

Producing graphene silk at 100m/s might also be pretty useful in just about every other manufacturing industry. With ultra-fine yarns with high strength produced at those speeds, it could revolutionize the fashion industry too.

An ultra-cheap future transport system.

transport system

Some of my followers might remember this idea I invented way back in 2005, and have blogged a few times since, such as in


The idea is simple enough: use a linear induction motor built into a rubber mat laid out on a bike lane to drag a metal plate attached to the bike front forks. The bike moves faster with less effort (though you can still put in as much effort as you want), and you get to the office less sweaty. Since your bike goes fast, the cars won’t need to endanger you by overtaking in unsuitable locations. The mat is laid out overnight and plugged into a nearby lamp post for electric supply. This was much more nicely illustrated by a proper illustrator in a report I just did with Hewden, the equipment hire firm:


I’ve since thought about using the same idea for the larger transport pods, which we imagined as self-driving vehicles in the report and picture.  There is no reason at all why a scaled-up version couldn’t be added to them too (just imagine them with a plate underneath to drag them along), then you don’t need the engine and once you go down that path of thinking, lots of other things start falling out. Read on.

Important note: no endorsement of any of this content by Hewden or any other company is implied. If you don’t like any of what follows, blame me and Futurizon Limited.

I think we may be about to see the biggest disruption of any industry. The transport industry is ripe for three waves of disruption. It knows all about the first two but seems to have totally missed the third, and yet it could be just a few years away. Every part of the industry will be strongly affected and some of it will be wiped out – whether it’s vehicle manufacture, servicing, fuel, spare parts, tires, brakes, or driving, it will change beyond recognition.

In the first wave, the internal combustion engine is starting slowly to give way to hybrids and all-electric vehicles, with talk of fuel cells, hydrogen, super-capacitors and so on. This wave is very well known and already well absorbed into every industry strategy. This week I helped promote the ‘go ultra low’ campaign. I am all in favor of using electricity instead of burning fuels wherever economically feasible, especially in city areas, even if the electricity comes from fossil fuel power stations. People should breathe clean air, not air full of exhaust gases and particulates.

The second and related wave is the push towards self-driving vehicles. Again, everyone that needs to probably already knows all they need to about it. They certainly have no excuse if it affects them and it still manages to catch them by surprise. Cars driven by AI coupled to sensors monitoring everything around the car can react in microseconds and talk to each other, so they can drive very close front and back and side by side so roads can hold 5-15 times more cars, all driving at a good speed. They can interleave automatically at junctions without even needing to slow down significantly instead of being stuck behind someone who is waiting for an invitation in triplicate to arrive signed by the Queen before they proceed. Self driving cars would not eliminate congestion, but they would very greatly reduce it, almost eliminate accidents, save pollution and resources and be far more socially inclusive than buses or trains. They have great potential to improve our lives in many ways, but obviously would make a lot of drivers redundant. They would also shift power from conventional car manufacturers to IT companies who are best placed to develop the intelligence and control systems. No surprises there at all, we read this stuff every day now.

However, we don’t even need self-driving cars. They are barely out of the lab, lawyers are still arguing over how insurance and liability for accidents should work, and already their end is in sight. Self-driving cars could be the next Betamax.

The third wave is driverless vehicles that don’t even need an engine, or batteries, or even supercapacitors, or the huge expenses for all the sensor equipment and onboard computers and all the other electronics. They don’t need much in the way of electronics or electrics at all. We might have the first buses in history that are simpler than a bus shelter.

This 3rd wave won’t even be electric vehicles!

Forgive my use of powerpoint graphics, but with generic vehicles, boxes make a good start point anyway, vehicle designers can design them any which way they like:


This wave will reduce the vehicle to little more than a moving box. It might have comfy seats and air conditioning added, but apart from that, it doesn’t need much else. Really it doesn’t. They could have wheels, and that would reduce electricity requirements somewhat, but then wheels would cost more and bring other issues, so they will be optional and we all know future cars are meant to hover anyway. If they do have wheels, they would still use the plates near the road surface just as the non-wheel versions. There is no need for brakes on the wheels if there is a long braking pad on the road surface for emergencies. One of my first ever engineering jobs was designing an electromagnetic braking system that pulled a brake pad onto another using magnetic field. If it worked in 1982, it will work in 2020.

The most basic version of such a vehicle would be literally an empty box with three pads on the base. It would be used for carrying goods. Two of the pads would levitate the vehicle, propel it, steer it and stop it. The third pad would be a high friction pad that would stop the vehicle very rapidly if necessary. That’s it. This kind of vehicle would only cost whatever it costs to make a thin plastic or carbon fiber box and stick two thin strips of metal on the base and a strip of brake pad. $200 is a reasonable estimate. For people transport, cost depends on the level of comfort needed. It won’t crash, so a minimum requirement is a plastic seat and a safety belt to stop you falling off, shaped to sit on the pads underneath and nest easily into the one in front for storage. Again, that could easily be mass-produced for $200.


Higher comfort versions could be made of course, where the passengers are fully enclosed, sound insulated and air conditioned, sitting on nice comfy leather seats on nice soft suspension. Even then, they still don’t need any engine or battery, or any electrics other than lighting, sound cancellation and air conditioning system. But there is nothing to stop car manufacturers continuing to make high luxury cabins if they want, there just might not be much of a market for them.

Lots of the electronics in modern cars is not really needed. We already have enough computing capability in our mobiles to do all our entertainment, navigation, location, comms between vehicles, all the IoT management. Your phone knows where it is, can get you all the media and comms you can eat, and can do the noise cancellation too. Decor is irrelevant once we have augmented reality – you can sit in a blank box and make it look as if you are in any place or any vehicle you want.

Propulsion doesn’t have to come from an engine, not even an electric motor. Decades ago the first linear induction transport system was built and now there are lots of trains using that mechanism, some travelling at very high speed. However, technology has moved on. We don’t need a huge rail for our boxes to sit on. It’s easy to suspend the box on strong magnetic fields and those fields can be produced and shaped easily, especially using graphene or superconductive materials, but perfectly adequately using conventional materials and strong permanent magnets. Position the plates on the base of the box in nicely shaped magnetic wells and they will stay there. The magnetic wells can be shaped as the vehicle goes along to direct it any way it needs to go. The passenger’s mobile knows where the passenger wants to go and can talk direct to the cloud based management system, which can control invisible ‘points’ in an invisible re-configurable ‘railway’ beneath the vehicle. If there is no passenger and only freight on board, the management system still knows what to do with each box and can navigate it correctly. So it is a travelling magnetic well drive. Steering the wells steers the cars or pods. It doesn’t have to use classic linear induction motors, it just needs to be able to move magnetic wells. Linear induction motors are one way of doing that, but anything that can shape a magnetic well for the pods to sit in, and make them travel along, will do. There are lots of ways to skin a cat, so they say.

A factory-produced mat can be laid out on a stretch of road overnight, plugged in to an electricity supply, and these vehicles could be carried on it the next day. Vehicles that need to slow down could have their kinetic energy recovered and transferred to others that need to accelerate. Total energy costs would be low.

All the benefits of self-driving cars would still hold. The vehicles can still be millimeters apart in each direction so could still reap all the congestion benefits, along with virtually zero drag. Not needing any engine, motor or battery or capacitor bank on board would greatly reduce the amount of resources needed to make a vehicle and the energy needed to propel it. Recognizing that almost all the electronics needed sits happily inside a mobile saves a lot more resources.

Grabbing a vehicle would be done by direct discussion between the mobile and city transport system. Any empty vehicle would simply pull over, you get in and get off at your destination. Cost could be low enough to absorb into normal city running costs. If vehicles are designed to nest into each other like supermarket trolleys, and if they really only cost about the same, they would require minimal storage space, liberating car parks and taxi ranks for other uses.

So our vehicles really could be just simple boxes with minimal additions for basic comfort or high luxury. On nice days, they could be open, on rainy days, you pull the hood over. In colder climes, there might be sides and doors.

Here’s a quick summary of the key points:


Internet-of-things is enabling the systems needed to track obstacles such as pedestrians, linking to ubiquitous sensors and cameras, so all the safety side is entirely feasible too without having to put it in the vehicle. Our mobiles and digital jewellery will work with lots of different kinds of security systems to ensure that pods don’t go anywhere without knowing who is or what is on board, preventing terrorists from filling them up with explosives and sending them to a target. Delivery pods would only open when properly authorised. Suspicious passengers or vehicles could be locked and routed automatically to safe inspection points.

I’m not going to build this, but someone will. If it’s you, buy me a beer when you get rich and make a donation to a homeless people’s charity. No new physics is required. As graphene becomes commercially available cheaply, as it will, it will become very cheap to put all the circuitry into cheap mats that can be laid out to do the work. Thieves won’t steal mats that only have carbon in them, whereas if they use lots of copper wiring, they might try. But understand that there is absolutely nothing to prevent someone starting development tomorrow and implementing this within a few years. This should be easier to build than self driving cars.

Reconfigurable circuits have been with us decades too, so rearranging the circuits to route each pod the right way at each junction is no problem. Electronic control systems too. A few bits of software need to be written, but then a simple box achieves exactly the same functionality as a self-driving car 100 times the cost.

So basically, conventional vehicles can be replaced by simpler and cheaper boxes. No engine, no fuel, no wheels, no suspension, no mechanical parts other than optional doors and sliding roofs, just comfy seats and life support systems. Almost all the frills via augmented reality and whatever else your future smartphones do. All the system management and control and data collection ditto.

In new cities, roads could be built with such a system in mind, with less street furniture and clutter. They would have clean air. Cheap and fast transport would encourage people to travel more, socialize more, live more, be happier. Cultural life would improve. Retrofitting it to existing cities would be easy too, just laying out factory-produced mats and plugging them into electric supply. With such ultra low costs, it would be the obvious choice for developing countries, helping to reduce CO2 production and demands on resources.

Lots of industries would be affected. We won’t need as much lithium of course, since these vehicles need no batteries. We won’t need as much steel, or aluminium, and we can recycle plastic to make the bodies and seats.

All the benefits of a self-driving car system at a tiny fraction of the price. What’s not to like?

2045: Constructing the future


Today is the day Marty Mc’Fly time traveled 30 years forwards to in ‘Back to the Future 2’. In recognition of that, equipment rental firm Hewden commissioned me to produce a report on what the world will look like in 2045, 30 years on from now. It considers construction technology as well as general changes in cities and buildings. The report is called 2045: Constructing the future and you can get a full copy from Here are a few of the highlights:

Report Highlights

High use of super-strong carbon-based materials, including ultra-high buildings such as spaceports up to 30km tall. Superlight materials will even enable decorative floating structures.


Greatly increased safety thanks to AI, robotics and total monitoring via drones

Half human, half machine workers will be common as exoskeletons allow workers to wear sophisticated hydraulic equipment.


Upskilled construction workers will enjoy better safety, better job satisfaction and better pay.

Augmented reality will be useful in construction and to allow cheap buildings to have elaborate appearance.

Smart makes buildings cheap – with tiny sensors, augmented reality, energy harvesting coatings, less wiring and no windows, buildings can become very cheap at the same time as becoming better.

The future of holes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technology 2040: Technotopia denied by human nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A potential architectural nightmare

I read in the papers that Google’s boss has rejected ‘boring’ plans for their London HQ. Hooray! Larry Page says he wants something that will be worthy of standing 100 years. I don’t always agree with Google but I certainly approve on this occasion. Given their normal style choices for other buildings, I have every confidence that their new building will be gorgeous, but what if I’m wrong?

In spite of the best efforts of Prince Charles, London has become a truly 21st century city. The new tall buildings are gorgeous and awe-inspiring as they should be. Whether they will be here in 100 years I don’t much care, but they certainly show off what can be done today, rather than poorly mimicking what could be done in the 16th century.

I’ve always loved modern architecture since I was a child (I like some older styles too, especially Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona). Stainless steel and glass are simple materials but used well, they can make beautiful structures. Since the Lloyds building opened up the new era, many impressive buildings have appeared. Modern materials have very well-known physical properties and high manufacturing consistency, so can be used at their full engineering potential.

Materials technology is developing quickly and won’t slow down any time soon. Recently discovered materials such as graphene will dramatically improve what can be done. Reliable electronics will too. If you could be certain that a device will always perform properly even when there is a local power cut, and is immune to hacking, then ultra-fast electromagnetic lifts could result. You could be accelerated downwards at 2.5g and the lift could rotate and slow you down at 0.5g in the slowing phase, then you would feel a constant weight all the way down but would reach high speed on a long descent. Cables just wouldn’t be able to do such a thing when we get building that are many kilometers high.

Google could only build with materials that exist now or could be reliable enough for building use by construction time. They can’t use graphene tension members or plasma windows or things that won’t even be invented for decades. Whatever they do, the materials and techniques will not remain state of the art for long. That means there is even more importance in making something that looks impressive. Technology dates quickly, style lasts much longer. So for possibly the first time ever, I’d recommend going for impressive style over substance.

There is an alternative; to go for a design that is adaptable, that can change as technology permits. That is not without penalty though, because making something that has to be adaptive restricts the design options.

I discussed plasma glass in:

I don’t really know if it will be feasible, but it might be.

Carbon foam could be made less dense than air, or even helium for that matter, so could make buildings with sections that float (a bit like the city in the game Bioshock Infinite).

Dynamic magnetic levitation could allow features that hover or move about. Again, this would need ultra-reliable electronics or else things would be falling on people. Lightweight graphene or carbon nanotube composite panels would provide both structural strength and the means to conduct the electricity to make the magnetic fields.

Light emission will remain an important feature. We already see some superb uses of lighting, but as the technology to produce light continues to improve, we will see ever more interesting and powerful effects. LEDs and lasers dominate today, and holograms are starting to develop again, but none of these existed until half a century ago. Even futurologists can only talk about things that exist at least in concept already, but many of the things that will dominate architecture in 50-100 years have probably not even been thought of yet. Obviously, I can’t list them. However, with a base level assumption that we will have at the very least free-floating panels and holograms floating around the building, and very likely various plasma constructions too, the far future building will be potentially very visually stimulating.

It will therefore be hard for Google to make a building today that would hold its own against what we can build in 50 or 100 years. Hard, but not impossible. Some of the most impressive structures in the world were built hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

A lighter form of adaptability is to use augmented reality. Buildings could have avatars just as people can. This is where the Google dream building could potentially become an architectural nightmare if they make another glass-style error.

A building might emit a 3D digital aura designed by its owners, or the user might have one superimposed by a third-party digital architecture service, based on their own architectural preferences, or digital architectural overlays could be hijacked by marketers or state services as just another platform to advertise. Clearly, this form of adaptation cannot easily be guaranteed to stay in the control of the building owners.

On the other hand, this one is for Google. Google and advertising are well acquainted. Maybe they could use their entire building surface as a huge personalised augmented reality advertising banner. They will know by image search who all the passers-by are, will know all aspects of their lives, and can customize ads to their desires as they walk past.

So the nightmare for the new Google building is not that the building will be boring, but that it is invisible, replaced by a personalized building-sized advertisement.


Stimulative technology

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

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

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

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


The future of obsolescence

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

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

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

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

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