Category Archives: materials

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.

The future of bacteria

Bacteria have already taken the prize for the first synthetic organism. Craig Venter’s team claimed the first synthetic bacterium in 2010.

Bacteria are being genetically modified for a range of roles, such as converting materials for easier extraction (e.g. coal to gas, or concentrating elements in landfill sites to make extraction easier), making new food sources (alongside algae), carbon fixation, pollutant detection and other sensory roles, decorative, clothing or cosmetic roles based on color changing, special surface treatments, biodegradable construction or packing materials, self-organizing printing… There are many others, even ignoring all the military ones.

I have written many times on smart yogurt now and it has to be the highlight of the bacterial future, one of the greatest hopes as well as potential danger to human survival. Here is an extract from a previous blog:

Progress is continuing to harness bacteria to make components of electronic circuits (after which the bacteria are dissolved to leave the electronics). Bacteria can also have genes added to emit light or electrical signals. They could later be enhanced so that as well as being able to fabricate electronic components, they could power them too. We might add various other features too, but eventually, we’re likely to end up with bacteria that contain electronics and can connect to other bacteria nearby that contain other electronics to make sophisticated circuits. We could obviously harness self-assembly and self-organisation, which are also progressing nicely. The result is that we will get smart bacteria, collectively making sophisticated, intelligent, conscious entities of a wide variety, with lots of sensory capability distributed over a wide range. Bacteria Sapiens.

I often talk about smart yogurt using such an approach as a key future computing solution. If it were to stay in a yogurt pot, it would be easy to control. But it won’t. A collective bacterial intelligence such as this could gain a global presence, and could exist in land, sea and air, maybe even in space. Allowing lots of different biological properties could allow colonization of every niche. In fact, the first few generations of bacteria sapiens might be smart enough to design their own offspring. They could probably buy or gain access to equipment to fabricate them and release them to multiply. It might be impossible for humans to stop this once it gets to a certain point. Accidents happen, as do rogue regimes, terrorism and general mad-scientist type mischief.

Transhumanists seem to think their goal is the default path for humanity, that transhumanism is inevitable. Well, it can’t easily happen without going first through transbacteria research stages, and that implies that we might well have to ask transbacteria for their consent before we can develop true transhumans.

Self-organizing printing is a likely future enhancement for 3D printing. If a 3D printer can print bacteria (onto the surface of another material being laid down, or as an ingredient in a suspension as the extrusion material itself, or even a bacterial paste, and the bacteria can then generate or modify other materials, or use self-organisation principles to form special structures or patterns, then the range of objects that can be printed will extend. In some cases, the bacteria may be involved in the construction and then die or be dissolved away.

Future materials: Variable grip

variable grip


Another simple idea for the future. Variable grip under electronic control.

Shape changing materials are springing up regularly now. There are shape memory metal alloys, proteins, polymer gel muscle fibers and even string (changes shape when it gets wet or dries again). It occurred to me that if you make a triangle out of carbon fibre or indeed anything hard, with a polymer gel base, and pull the base together, either the base moves down or the tip will move up. If tiny components this shape are embedded throughout a 3D structure such as a tire (tyre is the English spelling, the rest of this text just uses tire because most of the blog readers are Americans), then tiny spikes could be made to poke through the surface by contracting the polymer gel that forms the base. All you have to do is apply an electric field across it, and that makes the tire surface just another part of the car electronics along with the engine management system and suspension.

Tires that can vary their grip and wear according to road surface conditions might be attractive, especially in car racing, but also on the street. Emergency braking improvement would save lives, as would reduce skidding in rain or ice, and allowing the components to retract when not in use would greatly reduce their rate of wear. In racing, grip could be optimized for cornering and braking and wear could be optimized for the straights.


Although I haven’t bothered yet to draw pretty pictures to illustrate, clothes could use variable grip too. Shoes and gloves would both benefit. Since both can have easy contact with skin (shoes can use socks as a relay), the active components could pick up electrical signals associated with muscle control or even thinking. Even stress is detectable via skin resistance measurement. Having gloves or shoes that change grip just by you thinking it would be like a cat with claws that push out when it wants to climb a fence or attack something. You could even be a micro-scale version of Wolverine. Climbers might want to vary the grip for different kinds of rock, extruding different spikes for different conditions.

Other clothes could use different materials for the components and still use the same basic techniques to push them out, creating a wide variety of electronically controllable fabric textures. Anything from smooth and shiny through to soft and fluffy could be made with a single adaptable fabric garment. Shoes, hosiery, underwear and outerwear can all benefit. Fun!

The future of mining

I did an interview recently on future mining, so I thought I’d blog my thoughts on the subject while they’re all stuck together coherently.

Very briefly, increasing population and wealth will generate higher resource need until the resources needed per person starts to fall at a higher rate, and it will. That almost certainly means a few decades of increasing demand for many resources, with a few exceptions where substitution will impact at a higher rate. Eventually, demand will peak and fall for most resources. Meanwhile, the mining industry can prosper.


Robots are already used a lot in mining, but their uses will evolve. Robots have a greater potential range of senses than humans, able to detect whatever sensors are equipped for. That means they can see into rock and analyse composition better than our eyes. AI will improve their decisions. Of course, we’ll still have the self drive vehicles, diggers and the other automation we already expect to see.

If a mine can be fully automated, it may reduce deaths and costs significantly. Robots can also have a rapid speed of reaction as well as AI and advanced sensing, and could detect accidents before they happen. Apart from saving on wages, robots also don’t need expensive health and safety, so that may see lower costs, but at the expense of greater risks with occasional flat robots in an automated mine. The costs of robots can be kept low if most of their intelligence is remote rather than on board. Saving human lives is a benefit that can’t easily be costed. Far better to buy a new machine than to comfort a bereaved family.

Robots in many other mixed mines will need to be maintained, so maybe people’s main role will often be just looking after the machines, and we would still need to ensure safety in that case. That creates a big incentive to make machines that can be maintained by other machines so that full automation can be achieved.

With use of penetrating positioning systems, specialist wanderer bots could tunnel around at will, following a seam, extracting and concentrating useful materials and leave markers for collector bots to gather the concentrates.


With ongoing convergence of biotech, nanotech and IT, we should expect a lot of development of various types of bacterial or mechanical microbots, that can get into new places and reduce the costs of recovery, maybe even reopening some otherwise uneconomic mines. Development of bacteria that can transmute materials has already begun, and we should expect that some future mines will depend mainly on a few bucketfuls of bacterial soup to convert and concentrate resources into more easily extracted reserves. Such advanced technology will greatly increase the reserves of material that can economically be extracted. Obviously the higher the price, the more that can be justified on extraction, so advanced technologies will develop faster when we need them, as any shortages start to appear.

Deep Sea

Deep sea mines would provide access to far greater resource pools, limited mainly by the market price for the material. Re-opening other mines as technology improves recovery potential will also help.

Asteroid Mining

Moving away from the Earth, a lot of hype has appeared about asteroid mining and some analyses seem to think that it will impact enormously on the price of scarce materials here on Earth. I think that is oversold as a possibility.  Yes, it will be possible to bring stuff back to Earth, but the costs of landing materials safely would be high and only justified for those with extreme prices.  For traditionally expensive gold or diamonds, actual uses are relatively low and generally have good cheaper substitutes, so if large quantities were shipped back to Earth, prices would still be managed as they already are, with slow trickling onto the market to avoid price collapse. That greatly limits the potential wealth from doing so.

I think it is far more likely that asteroid mining will be focused on producing stuff for needed for construction, travel and living in space, such as space stations, ships, energy collection, habitation, outposts etc. In that case, many of the things mined from asteroids would be things that are cheap here, such as water and iron and other everyday materials. Their value in space might be far higher simply because of the expense of moving them. This last factor suggests that there may be a lot of interest in technologies to move asteroids or change their orbits so the resources end up closer to where they are needed. An asteroid could be mined at great length, with the materials extracted and left on its surface, then waiting until the asteroid is close to the required destination before the materials are collected and dispatched. The alternative that we routinely see in sci-fi, with vast mining ships, is possible, and there will undoubtedly be times they are needed, but surely can’t compete on cost with steering an entire asteroid so it delivers the materials itself.

Population growth and resource need

As human population increases, we’ll eventually also see robot and android population increase, and they might also need resources for their activities. We should certainly factor that into future demand estimates. However, there are also future factors that will reduce the resources needed.

Smarter Construction

More advanced construction techniques, development of smarter materials and use of reactive architecture all mean that less resource is needed for a given amount of building. Exotic materials such as graphene  and carbon nanotubes, boron derivatives, and possibly even plasma in some applications, will all impact on construction and other industries and reduce demand for lots of resources. The carbon derivatives are a double win, since carbon can usefully be extracted from the products of fossil fuel energy production, making cleaner energy at the same time as providing building and fabrication materials. The new carbon materials are a lot stronger than steel, so we may build much higher buildings, making a lower environmental footprint for cities. They are also perfect for making self-driving cars as well as their energy storage, power supply and supporting infrastructure.

IT efficiency v the Greens

Miniaturisation of electronics and IT will continue for decades more. A few cubic millimetres of electronics could easily replace all the electronics owned by a typical family today. Perversely, Greens are trying hard to force a slower obsolescence cycle, not understanding that the faster we get to minimal resource use, the lower the overall environmental impact will be. By prolonging high-resource-use gadgets, even as people get wealthier and can afford to buy more, the demands will increase far beyond what is really necessary of they hadn’t interfered. It is far better for 10 billion people to use a few cubic millimetres each than a few litres. Greens also often want to introduce restrictions on development of other advanced technology, greatly overusing the precautionary principle. Their distrust of science and technology is amazing considering how much it can obviously benefit the environment.

A lot of things can be done virtually too, with no resource use at all, especially displays and interfaces, all of which could share a single common display such as a 0.2 gram active contact lens. A lot of IT can be centralised with greater utilisation, while some can achieve better efficiency by decentralising. We need to apply intelligence to the problem, looking at each bit as part of an overall system instead of in isolation, and looking at the full life cycle as well as the full system.

Substitution will reduce demand for copper, neodymium, lithium

Recycling of some elements will provide more than is needed by a future market because of material substitution, so prices of some could fall, such as copper. Copper in plumbing is already being substituted heavily by plastic. In communications, fibre and mobile are already heavily replacing it. In power cables, it will eventually be substituted by graphene. Similar substitution is likely in many other materials. The primary use of neodymium is in wind turbines and high speed motors. As wind turbines are abandoned and recycled in favour of better energy production techniques, as future wind power can even be based on plastic capacitors that need hardly any metal at all, and as permanent magnets in motors are substituted by superconducting magnets, there may not be much demand for neodymium. Similarly, lithium is in great demand for batteries, but super-capacitors, again possibly using carbon derivatives such as graphene, will substitute greatly for them. Inductive power coupling from inductive mats in a road surface could easily replace most of the required capacity for a car battery, especially as self driving cars will be lighter and closer together, reducing energy demand. Self-driving cars even reduce the number of cars needed as they deter private ownership. So it is a win-win-win for everyone except the mining industry. A small battery or super-cap bank might have little need for lithium. Recycled lithium could be all we need. Recycling will continue to improve through better practice and better tech, and also some rubbish tips could even be mined if we’re desperate. With fewer cars needed, and plastic instead of steel, that also impacts on steel need.

The Greens are the best friends of the mining industry

So provided we can limit Green interference and get on with developing advanced technology quickly, the fall in demand per person (or android) may offset resource need at a higher rate than the population increases. We could use less material in the far future than we do today, even with a far higher average standard of living. After population peaks and starts falling, there could be a rapid price fall as a glut of recycled material appears. That would be a bleak outcome for the mining sector of course. In that case, by delaying that to the best of their ability, it turns out that the Greens are the mining industry’s best friends, useful idiots, ensuring that the markets remain as large as possible for as long as possible, with the maximum environmental impact.

It certainly takes a special restriction of mind to let someone do so much harm to the environment while still believing they occupy the moral high ground!

Carbon industry

Meanwhile, carbon sequestration could easily evolve into a carbon materials industry, in direct competition with the traditional resources sector, with carbon building materials, cables, wires, batteries, capacitors, inductors, electronics, fabrics…..a million uses. Plastics will improve in parallel, often incorporating particles of electronics, sensors, and electronic muscles, making a huge variety of potential smart materials for any kind of building, furniture of gadget. The requirement for concrete, steel, aluminium, copper, and many other materials will eventually drop, even as population and wealth grows.

To conclude, although population increase and wealth increase will generate increasing demand in the short to medium term, and mining will develop rapidly along many avenues, in the longer term, the future will rely far more on recycling and advanced manufacturing techniques, so the demand for raw materials will eventually peak and fall.

I wrote at far greater length about achieving a system-wide sustainable future in my book Total Sustainability, which avoids the usual socialist baggage.

Active Skin part 2: initial applications

When I had the active skin idea, it was obvious that there would be a lot of applications so I dragged the others from the office into a brainstorm to determine the scope of this concept. These are the original ideas from that 2001 brainstorm and the following days as I wrote them up, so don’t expect this to be an updated 2014 list, I might do that another time. Some of these have been developed at least in part by other companies in the years since, and many more are becoming more obvious as applications now that the technology foundations are catching up. I have a couple more parts of this to publish, with some more ideas. I’ve loosely listed them here in sections according to layer, but some of the devices may function at two or more different layers. I won’t repeat them, so it should be assumed that any of these could be appropriate to more than one layer. You’ll notice we didn’t bother with the wearables layer since even in 2001 wearable computing was already a well-established field in IT labs, with lots of ideas already. Slide2 Smart tattoos layer This layer is produced by deep printing well into the skin, possibly using similar means to that for tattooing. Some devices could be implanted by means of water or air pressure injection Slide10 Slide11 Slide6

  1. Display capability leading to static or multimedia display instead of static ink
  2. Use for multimedia body adornment, context dependent tattoos, tribalism
  3. monitor body chemicals for clues to emotional, hormonal or health state
  4. Measurement of blood composition to assist in drug dosing
  5. monitor nerve signals
  6. tattoos that show body’s medical state or other parameters
  7. health monitor displays, e.g.  blood insulin level, warning displays, instructions and recommendations on what actions to take
  8. show emotional state, emoticons shown according to biochemical or electrical cues
  9. may convert information on body’s state into other stimuli, such as heat or vibration
  10. may do same from external stimuli
  11. devices in different people could be linked in this way, forming emotilinks. Groups of people could be linked. People belonging to several such groups might have different signalling or position for each group.
  12. Identification, non-erasable, much less invasive than having an implant for the same purpose so would not have the same public objection. This could be electronic, or as simple as ultraviolet ink in a machine readable form such as barcode, snowflake etc
  13. Power supply for external devices using body’s energy supply, e.g. ATP
  14. Metallic ear implants on ear drum as hearing aid – electrostatic or magnetically driven
  15. Electronic signet ring, electronics that will only function when held by the rightful user
  16. Electronic signature devices

Mid-term layer Slide8 Slide9 Slide7Slide5 These components could be imprinted by printing onto the skin surface. Some could be implemented by adsorption from transfers, others by mechanical injection.

  1. Access technology – temporary access to buildings or theme parks. Rather than a simple stamp, people could have a smarter ID device printed into their skin
  2. The device could monitor where the wearer goes and for how long
  3. It could interact with monitoring equipment in buildings or equipment
  4. The device might include the use of invisible active inks on smart membrane
  5. Components could be made soluble to wash off easily, or more permanent
  6. Components could be photodegradable
  7. Could use ultraviolet inks that may be read by either external devices or other components
  8. Like smart tattoo ID systems, they could use snowflakes, colour snowflakes, barcodes or ‘digital paper’, to give a ‘digital skin’ functionality
  9. This could interact with ‘digital air’ devices
  10. Could be used to co-ordinate external device positioning accurately for medical reasons, e.g. acupuncture, TENS etc.
  11. Ultra-smart finger prints, wide range of functions based on interaction with computers and external devices, other smart skin systems, or digital paper
  12. Outputs DNA or DNA code to external reader for ID or medical reasons
  13. Combine with smart tags to achieve complex management and control systems, e.g. in package handling, product assembly
  14. SOS talismans, full health record built into body, including blood groups, tissue groups etc
  15. Degradable radiation monitors that can be positioned at key body points for more accurate dose measurement
  16. Could signal between such devices to a central display via the skin
  17. Devices might communicate using ad-hoc networks, could be used as a distributed antenna for external communication
  18. Thermometers & alarms. Use to measure heat for alarms for old people with degraded senses
  19. Directly interact with smart showers to prevent scalding
  20. Could monitor peoples behaviour for behaviour based alarms, e.g. fall alarms
  21. Overlay synthetic nervous system, use for medical prostheses, bionics or external interfacing
  22. Synthesised senses, making us sensitive to stimuli outside our biological capability
  23. Smart teeth, checks food for presence of bacteria or toxins
  24. Monitor breath for bad odours or illness
  25. Diabetic supervision, monitor ketones
  26. Monitor diet and link to smart devices in the home or hospital to police diet
  27. Modify taste by directly stimulating nerves in the tongue? Probably not feasible
  28. Calorie counting
  29. Smile enhancement, using light emission or fluorescence
  30. Smile training, e.g. tactile feedback on mouth position after operation
  31. Operation scar monitoring, patch across wound could monitor structural integrity,
  32. infection monitor based on detecting presence of harmful bacteria, or characteristics of surrounding skin affected by infection
  33. semi-permanent nail varnish with variable colour
  34. context sensitive nail varnish
  35. multimedia nail varnish
  36. Baby tagging for security purposes & wide range of medical applications such as breathing monitoring, temperature, movement etc
  37. Operation tagging to prevent mistakes, direct interaction with electronic equipment in theatre
  38. ITU applications
  39. Active alarms, integrated into external devices, directly initiate action
  40. Position based sensors and alarms
  41. Personality badge

Transfer layer This layer could use printing techniques straight onto the skin surface, or use transfers. A thin transfer membrane may stay in place for the duration of the required functionality, but could be removed relatively easily if necessary. It is envisaged that this membrane would be a thin polymer that acts as a carrier for the components as well as potentially shielding them from direct contact with the body or from the outside world. It could last for up to several days.

  1. Tactile interfaces – vibration membranes that convey texture or simple vibration
  2. Tactile stimuli as a means for alarms, coupled with heat, cold, or radiation sensors
  3. Text to Braille translation without need for external devices, using actuators in fingertip pads
  4. Use for navigation based on external magnetic field measurement, GPS or other positioning systems, translated into sensory stimuli
  5. Measurement and possible recording of force
  6. use to police child abuse, or other handling in the workplace as safety precautions. Could link to alarms
  7. motion detection, using kinetic or magnetic detection for use in sports or medical systems
  8. actuators built into transfers could give force feedback.
  9. Could directly link to nerve stimulation via lower layers to accomplish full neural feedback
  10. combine sensor and actuators to directly control avatars in cyberspace and for computer interfacing feedback
  11. interfaces for games
  12. short duration software licenses for evaluation purposes, needs fragile transfer so limits use to single user for lifetime of transfer
  13. sensors on eyes allow eye tracking
  14. direct retinal display, active contact lens replacement
  15. UV phosphors allow ultraviolet vision
  16. Actuators or tensioning devices could control wrinkles
  17. could assist in training for sports
  18. training for typing, playing music, music composition, virtual instruments
  19. keypad-free dialling
  20. air typing, drawing, sculpting
  21. type on arm using finger and arm patches
  22. finger snap control
  23. active sign languages
  24. ‘palm pilot’, computer on hand
  25. digital computer, count on fingers
  26. generic 3D interface
  27. use with transfer phone
  28. education use to explore surfaces of virtual objects in virtual environments
  29. use for teletravel navigation, or use in dangerous environments for controlling robotics
  30. direct nervous system links
  31. could assist in body language in conjunction with emotion sensors for socially disadvantaged people
  32. could act as signalling device in place of phone ring or audible alarms (actuator is not necessarily piezoelectric vibrator)
  33. doorbell on skin, personal doorbell, only alerts person of relevance
  34. active sunscreen using electrical stimuli to change sun-block cream to block UV when UV dose is reached
  35. could electrically alter heat radiation properties to enhance heating or cooling of body
  36. membranes with smart holes allow just the right amount of drug delivery in conjunction with smart tattoos. May use lower layers to accurately position and record dosing data
  37. Could use heat, cold, vibration as signals between people
  38. Electronic muscles – use polymer gel or memory metal or contracting wires
  39. Ultrasonic communication between devices and outside world
  40. Teledildonic applications
  41. Oscillating magnetic patches for medical reasons
  42. Applies voltage across wound to assist healing
  43. Smart Nicotine or antibiotic patches
  44. Painkilling patches using pain measurement (nerve activity) and directly controlling using electric stimuli, or administering drugs
  45. Placebo device patches
  46. Multimedia cosmetics
  47. Smart cosmetics, with actuators, smart tattoos that are removable
  48. Self organising cosmetic circuits, sensor, smart chemicals and actuator matrices
  49. Continuous electrolysis as hair growth limiter
  50. Electro-acupuncture with accurate positioning
  51. Control of itching to allow more rapid recovery
  52. Baby-care anti-scratch patches
  53. Printed aerials on body for device communication
  54. Detect, record, process and transmit nerve signals
  55. EEG use
  56. Thought control of devices
  57. Invisible scalp sensors for thought collection
  58. Emotion badge
  59. Truth badge, using body cues to convey whether lying or not. Could be unknown to wearer, transmitting by radio or ultrasound or in UV
  60. Context sensitive perfumes, emotionally sensitive perfumes
  61. Inverse heat sensitive perfumes, prevent too much being given off when warm
  62. Smell sensitive deodorant, or temperature dependent
  63. Context sensitive makeup, that behaves differently with different people at different situations or times
  64. Colour sensitive sun-block, protects more on fairer skin
  65. Active Bindies (dots on Indian women foreheads)
  66. Active jewellery
  67. Power generation for wearable electrical devices, using body heat, solar power, kinetics or skin contraction
  68. Microphones
  69. Frequency translation to allow hearing out of normal audible spectrum
  70. Bugs – unspecified functions in devices
  71. Mosquito killers, zapping insects with charge, or deterring with ultrasound or electrical signals
  72. Automatic antiseptic injections
  73. Use on animals for medical and pest control purposes
  74. Pet signalling and training
  75. Pet homing
  76. Pet ID systems
  77. Jam nerves
  78. Muscle toning
  79. Image capture, compound eyes, raster scan with micro-mirror and transverse lens
  80. Phones, watches, diaries etc
  81. Chameleon, cuttlefish pattern novelties
  82. Orifice monitoring
  83. Transfer body suit, self-organising polymer coating. Use for sports etc.
  84. Position-based devices
  85. Morse code devices for children’s communications
  86. Movement to voice translation – guidance for blind people or use for everyday navigation, sports feedback
  87. Strain alarms
  88. Use with smart drugs
  89. Smell as ring tone
  90. Smell as alarm
  91. Smell for emotion conveyance
  92. Snap fingers to switch lights on
  93. Tactile interfaces
  94. Emotional audio-video capture
  95. record on body condition
  96. wires on skin as addition to MIT bodynet
  97. tension control devices to assist wound healing
  98. avatar mimicry, electronically control ones appearance
  99. electronic paint-by numbers

100.means to charge up other devices by linking to external electrical device or by induction 101.devices that can read ultraviolet ink on sub layer 102.finger mouse, using fingertip sensors instead of mouse, can be used in 3D with appropriate technology base 103.Use of combinations of patches to monitor relative movements of body parts for use in training and medical treatments. Could communicate using infrared, radio or ultrasound 104.Use of an all-over skin that acts as a protective film so that each device doesn’t have to be dermatologically tested. Unlikely to be full body but could cover some key areas. E.g. some people are allergic to Elastoplast, so could have their more vulnerable areas covered. 105.Strain gauges on stomach warning of overeating 106.Strain gauge based posture alarms on the neck, back and shoulders etc 107.Breathalysers in smart teeth alert drivers to being over the limit and interact directly with car immobilisers 108.Pedometers and weight sensors built into feet to monitor exercise etc 109.Battlefield management systems using above systems with remote management Fully Removable layer

  1. Smart elastoplasts
  2. Smart contact lenses with cameras and video
  3. Smart suits with sensors and actuators for sports and work
  4. Almost all conventional personal electronic devices
  5. Web server
  6. Web sites

Active Skin – an old idea whose time is coming

Active Skin

In May 2001, while working in BT research, I had an idea – how we could use the skin surface as a new platform for electronics. I grabbed a few of my colleagues – Robin Mannings, Dennis Johnston, Ian Neild, and Paul Bowman, and we shut ourselves in a room for a few hours to brainstorm it. We originally intended to patent some of the ideas, but they weren’t core business for a telecoms company like BT so that never happened.

Now, 12.5 years on, it is too late to extract any value from a patent, but some of the technologies are starting to appear around the world as prototypes by various labs and companies, so it’s time is drawing near. We never did publish the ideas, though a few did make it out via various routes and I talk about active skin in my writings more generally. So I thought I’d serialise some of the ideas list now – there are lots. This one will just be the intro.


Today we have implants in the body, and wearable devices such as watches and cell-phones in regular proximity to our bodies, with a much looser affiliation to other forms of electronics such as palmtops and other computers. With recent advances in miniaturisation, print technology and polymer based circuits, a new domain is now apparent but as yet unexploited, and offers enormous potential business for a nimble first-mover. The domain is the skin itself, where the body meets the rest of the world. We have called it active skin, and it has a wide range of potential applications.

Active skin layers

Stimulated by MIT work in late 1990s that has shown that the skin can be used as a communications medium, a logical progression is to consider what other uses it might be put to. What we proposed is a multi-layer range of devices.Slide2

(actually, this original pic wasn’t drawn quite right. The transfer layer sits just on the skin, not in it.)

The innermost ‘tattoo layer’ is used for smart tattoos, which are permanently imprinted into the lower layers of the skin. These layers do not wear or wash away.

The next ‘mid-term’ layer is the upper layers of the skin, which wear away gradually over time.

Above this we move just outside to the ‘transfer layer’. Children frequently wear ‘tattoos’ that are actually just transfers that stick onto the skin surface, frequently on a thin polymer base. They are fairly robust against casual contact, but can be removed fairly easily.

The final ‘detachable layer’ is occupied by fully removable devices that are only worn on a temporary basis, but which interact with the layers below.

Above this is the ‘wearable layer; the domain of the normal everyday gadget such as a watch.

A big advantage for this field is that space is not especially limited, so devices can be large in one or two dimensions. However, they must be flexible and very thin to be of use in this domain and be more comfortable than the useful alternatives.