Category Archives: medicine

Medic or futurist – A personal history

This article is autobiographical drivel and nothing to do with the future. Read on only if you are bored enough.

I sometimes wanted to be a doctor when I was young, but when I was 17, I looked about 12, and realised that I would probably look about 16 by the time I graduated, and that, believe it or not, is one of the two main reasons I chose to study Physics and Maths at university rather than medicine. (I was proved right – I was last asked what age I was getting on a bus when I was 22, the child discount ending only when you hit 16, and I was last turned away from a night club for being under 18 when I was 25). The 2nd main reason was that although I was reasonably bright, my memory was rubbish, and while Physics and Maths rewards intellect, medicine rewards memory.

I do like to read medical articles occasionally, even if the microbiology and chemistry side of it often leaves me bored. However, I’ve also invented quite a few things in the medical space, so I do find it fun sometimes too.

A few days ago I was very pleased with myself after reading an article on the wondrous properties of Marmite, suspected to increase GABA levels in the brain, and since it mentioned poor memory, anxiety and overactive neurons, some quick Googling then linked that to both epilepsy and childhood febrile seizure.

Suddenly a lot of my family history fell neatly into place. I had such a seizure followed by a coma apparently when my parents cruelly abandoned me screaming at a Scottish petrol station because they counted their kids wrongly. The last thing I recall is their car disappearing into the distance. They did eventually come back for me, but the damage was done. According to google, or rather one of the articles it showed me, these seizures damage the hippocampus, causing lasting problems with memory, and I’ve always had problems memorising stuff. So my first major conclusion from my Googling is that my poor memory was likely caused by my parents abandoning me at the petrol station, and that then caused me to choose Physics and Maths degree, end up as a systems engineer and then a futurologist.  So, I am a futurist and not a doctor, because I was abandoned as a child. Hmmm!

Low GABA levels that make kids susceptible to that also cause hyperactive neurons that don’t stop firing properly and cause anxiety, which I and many others in my clan suffer from. I suffer a lot of neural noise, making it hard to play musical instruments because of unwanted signals, hard to settle and relax, hard to ever feel calm, very often feeling unsettled and anxious for no reason. It also links to epilepsy and to transient ischemic attacks and strokes, more family history and again to myself – I had a suspected TIA 3 years ago. On the upside, I do wonder whether that hyperactive neural firing isn’t one of the main reasons why my brain often works well at making cross-links between concepts and imagination-related tasks generally. Or that could be one of the other effects of low GABA, the inefficient neural pruning in teen years that normally should channel the brain into narrowed but more stable thinking processes. That would even explain why I am still waiting to group up, at 56!

As a result of that article, I have eaten a dose of Marmite religiously every single day since I managed to get some, for two days now! It is probably too early to tell if there are any major benefits, though I can already confirm that it doesn’t taste as nice if you eat a teaspoonful straight off the teaspoon rather than on toast.

Google isn’t perfect by a long way, but its search engine makes up for a multitude of sins. My conclusions above might be rubbish, but it was fun coming up with them anyway.

Time moves on. I was just having my daily look at phys.org, a great website that has links to many interesting recent articles across science, and it mentioned that celiac disease (coeliac disease in UK) may be caused by a virus. I know a few people with that, but I don’t. However, a long time ago, in 1989 I did have cancer, a rare and aggressive T-cell lymphoma, and I am grateful to be one of the 65% survivors. Because it was rare, with just a few cases a year in the UK, not much was known about it at the time, but it had already been suspected that it might be triggered by a severe trauma or a virus. So, having had my memory triggered by the phys.org article, I checked up to see if there had ever been much progress on that, and yes, it is now known that it is caused by the HTLV-1 virus. (e.g. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK304341/)

So, I wondered, how did I get it, since Google says it is apparently almost unheard of in native Europeans. That connects to the other suspected cause, trauma. When I was a young man, I was badly injured in a motorbike accident, and my GP later suggested that might possibly have caused the cancer, but he was wrong. The connection wasn’t the trauma itself, but the virus, the infection route being that during my treatment for that trauma, I received several pints of blood, the only mechanism possible for me personally getting the virus. I could not have been infected via the other mechanisms.

So now I know that I must have received contaminated blood and that is what later caused my cancer, though in fairness to the Belfast City Hospital, they could not have known about that at the time so I won’t sue. (I’ll also generously overlook the fact that the Staff Nurse (let’s just call her Elizabeth) tied my traction so wrongly that it was prevented from applying tension to my leg, and it was only corrected weeks later when I was sentient again and complained and finally got someone to fix it, resulting in my left leg being permanently 4cm shorter than my right leg.)

Reading still further, it turns out that HTLV-1 was almost unheard of in native Europeans, therefore it must have been blood from a donor of foreign origin. 1983 Belfast had very few people from the regions most likely to carry the virus – sub-Saharan Africa, South America, Caribbean and a few parts of Japan – so few in fact, that it would very likely be possible to check the blood donor records from that period and infer exactly whose blood it would have been. It is possible they are still alive, still a blood donor, still infecting people with HTLV-1 and up to 1 in 25 of the recipients developing a T-cell lymphoma. On the other hand, since I had cancer, I have been banned from being a blood or bone marrow donor, which I now know actually does make perfect sense.

But hang on, I had my motorbike accident while travelling to work, as an engineer. If I had done a medicine degree, I wouldn’t have been on that road, I’d have been in medical school. So I wouldn’t have needed the blood, wouldn’t have been infected with the virus, and wouldn’t have later got cancer.

So, a fascinating week for me. Several personal and family medical mysteries that our GPs don’t have time or inclination to look into have been solved by two random press articles and the google searches they triggered.

Thanks to two ordinary press articles I now know that something as everyday and trivial as my mother not checking her toddler was in the car before they drove away caused me to be a futurist, via becoming an engineer and having a crash that left me permanently disfigured and later led to cancer. On the fun side, I can solve some everyday issues by eating Marmite, but doing so might adversely affect my thinking process and make me less creative. What a week!

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Diabetes: Electronically controlled drug delivery via smart membrane

This is an invention I made in 2001 as part of my active skin suite to help diabetics. I’ve just been told I am another of the zillions of diabetics in the world so was reminded of it.

This wasn’t feasible in 2001 but it will be very soon, and could be an ideal way of monitoring blood glucose and insulin levels, checking with clinic AI for the correct does, and then opening the membrane pores just enough and long enough to allow the right dose of insulin to pass through. Obviously pore and drug particle design have to be coordinated, but this should be totally feasible. Here’s some pics:

Active skin principles

Active skin principles

Drug delivery overview

Drug delivery overview

Drug delivery mechanism

Drug delivery mechanism

New book: Society Tomorrow

It’s been a while since my last blog. That’s because I’ve been writing another book, my 8th so far. Not the one I was doing on future fashion, which went on the back burner for a while, I’ve only written a third of that one, unless I put it out as a very short book.

This one follows on from You Tomorrow and is called Society Tomorrow, 20% shorter at 90,000 words. It is ready to publish now, so I’m just waiting for feedback from a few people before hitting the button.

Frontcover

Here’s the introduction:

The one thing that we all share is that we will get older over the next few decades. Rapid change affects everyone, but older people don’t always feel the same effects as younger people, and even if we keep up easily today, some of us may find it harder tomorrow. Society will change, in its demographic and ethnic makeup, its values, its structure. We will live very differently. New stresses will come from both changing society and changing technology, but there is no real cause for pessimism. Many things will get better for older people too. We are certainly not heading towards utopia, but the overall quality of life for our ageing population will be significantly better in the future than it is today. In fact, most of the problems ahead are related to quality of life issues in society as a whole, and simply reflect the fact that if you don’t have to worry as much about poor health or poverty, something else will still occupy your mind.

This book follows on from 2013’s You Tomorrow, which is a guide to future life as an individual. It also slightly overlaps my 2013 book Total Sustainability which looks in part at future economic and social issues as part of achieving sustainability too. Rather than replicating topics, this book updates or omits them if they have already been addressed in those two companion books. As a general theme, it looks at wider society and the bigger picture, drawing out implications for both individuals and for society as a whole to deal with. There are plenty to pick from.

If there is one theme that plays through the whole book, it is a strong warning of the problem of increasing polarisation between people of left and right political persuasion. The political centre is being eroded quickly at the moment throughout the West, but alarmingly this does not seem so much to be a passing phase as a longer term trend. With all the potential benefits from future technology, we risk undermining the very fabric of our society. I remain optimistic because it can only be a matter of time before sense prevails and the trend reverses. One day the relative harmony of living peacefully side by side with those with whom we disagree will be restored, by future leaders of higher quality than those we have today.

Otherwise, whereas people used to tolerate each other’s differences, I fear that this increasing intolerance of those who don’t share the same values could lead to conflict if we don’t address it adequately. That intolerance currently manifests itself in increasing authoritarianism, surveillance, and an insidious creep towards George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The worst offenders seem to be our young people, with students seemingly proud of trying to ostracise anyone who dares agree with what they think is correct. Being students, their views hold many self-contradictions and clear lack of thought, but they appear to be building walls to keep any attempt at different thought away.

Altogether, this increasing divide, built largely from sanctimony, is a very dangerous trend, and will take time to reverse even when it is addressed. At the moment, it is still worsening rapidly.

So we face significant dangers, mostly self-inflicted, but we also have hope. The future offers wonderful potential for health, happiness, peace, prosperity. As I address the significant problems lying ahead, I never lose my optimism that they are soluble, but if we are to solve problems, we must first recognize them for what they are and muster the willingness to deal with them. On the current balance of forces, even if we avoid outright civil war, the future looks very much like a gilded cage. We must not ignore the threats. We must acknowledge them, and deal with them.

Then we can all reap the rich rewards the future has to offer.

It will be out soon.

How nigh is the end?

“We’re doomed!” is a frequently recited observation. It is great fun predicting the end of the world and almost as much fun reading about it or watching documentaries telling us we’re doomed. So… just how doomed are we? Initial estimate: Maybe a bit doomed. Read on.

My 2012 blog https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/nuclear-weapons/ addressed some of the possibilities for extinction-level events possibly affecting us. I recently watched a Top 10 list of threats to our existence on TV and it was similar to most you’d read, with the same errors and omissions – nuclear war, global virus pandemic, terminator scenarios, solar storms, comet or asteroid strikes, alien invasions, zombie viruses, that sort of thing. I’d agree that nuclear war is still the biggest threat, so number 1, and a global pandemic of a highly infectious and lethal virus should still be number 2. I don’t even need to explain either of those, we all know why they are in 1st and 2nd place.

The TV list included a couple that shouldn’t be in there.

One inclusion was an mega-eruption of Yellowstone or another super-volcano. A full-sized Yellowstone mega-eruption would probably kill millions of people and destroy much of civilization across a large chunk of North America, but some of us don’t actually live in North America and quite a few might well survive pretty well, so although it would be quite annoying for Americans, it is hardly a TEOTWAWKI threat. It would have big effects elsewhere, just not extinction-level ones. For most of the world it would only cause short-term disruptions, such as economic turbulence, at worst it would start a few wars here and there as regions compete for control in the new world order.

Number 3 on their list was climate change, which is an annoyingly wrong, albeit a popularly held inclusion. The only climate change mechanism proposed for catastrophe is global warming, and the reason it’s called climate change now is because global warming stopped in 1998 and still hasn’t resumed 17 years and 9 months later, so that term has become too embarrassing for doom mongers to use. CO2 is a warming agent and emissions should be treated with reasonable caution, but the net warming contribution of all the various feedbacks adds up to far less than originally predicted and the climate models have almost all proven far too pessimistic. Any warming expected this century is very likely to be offset by reduction in solar activity and if and when it resumes towards the end of the century, we will long since have migrated to non-carbon energy sources, so there really isn’t a longer term problem to worry about. With warming by 2100 pretty insignificant, and less than half a metre sea level rise, I certainly don’t think climate change deserves to be on any list of threats of any consequence in the next century.

The top 10 list missed two out by including climate change and Yellowstone, and my first replacement candidate for consideration might be the grey goo scenario. The grey goo scenario is that self-replicating nanobots manage to convert everything including us into a grey goo.  Take away the silly images of tiny little metal robots cutting things up atom by atom and the laughable presentation of this vanishes. Replace those little bots with bacteria that include electronics, and are linked across their own cloud to their own hive AI that redesigns their DNA to allow them to survive in any niche they find by treating the things there as food. When existing bacteria find a niche they can’t exploit, the next generation adapts to it. That self-evolving smart bacteria scenario is rather more feasible, and still results in bacteria that can conquer any ecosystem they find. We would find ourselves unable to fight back and could be wiped out. This isn’t very likely, but it is feasible, could happen by accident or design on our way to transhumanism, and might deserve a place in the top ten threats.

However, grey goo is only one of the NBIC convergence risks we have already imagined (NBIC= Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno). NBIC is a rich seam for doom-seekers. In there you’ll find smart yogurt, smart bacteria, smart viruses, beacons, smart clouds, active skin, direct brain links, zombie viruses, even switching people off. Zombie viruses featured in the top ten TV show too, but they don’t really deserve their own category and more than many other NBIC derivatives. Anyway, that’s just a quick list of deliberate end of world solutions – there will be many more I forgot to include and many I haven’t even thought of yet. Then you have to multiply the list by 3. Any of these could also happen by accident, and any could also happen via unintended consequences of lack of understanding, which is rather different from an accident but just as serious. So basically, deliberate action, accidents and stupidity are three primary routes to the end of the world via technology. So instead of just the grey goo scenario, a far bigger collective threat is NBIC generally and I’d add NBIC collectively into my top ten list, quite high up, maybe 3rd after nuclear war and global virus. AI still deserves to be a separate category of its own, and I’d put it next at 4th.

Another class of technology suitable for abuse is space tech. I once wrote about a solar wind deflector using high atmosphere reflection, and calculated it could melt a city in a few minutes. Under malicious automated control, that is capable of wiping us all out, but it doesn’t justify inclusion in the top ten. One that might is the deliberate deflection of a large asteroid to impact on us. If it makes it in at all, it would be at tenth place. It just isn’t very likely someone would do that.

One I am very tempted to include is drones. Little tiny ones, not the Predators, and not even the ones everyone seems worried about at the moment that can carry 2kg of explosives or Anthrax into the midst of football crowds. Tiny drones are far harder to shoot down, but soon we will have a lot of them around. Size-wise, think of midges or fruit flies. They could be self-organizing into swarms, managed by rogue regimes, terrorist groups, or set to auto, terminator style. They could recharge quickly by solar during short breaks, and restock their payloads from secret supplies that distribute with the swarm. They could be distributed globally using the winds and oceans, so don’t need a plane or missile delivery system that is easily intercepted. Tiny drones can’t carry much, but with nerve gas or viruses, they don’t have to. Defending against such a threat is easy if there is just one, you can swat it. If there is a small cloud of them, you could use a flamethrower. If the sky is full of them and much of the trees and the ground infested, it would be extremely hard to wipe them out. So if they are well designed to cause an extinction level threat, as MAD 2.0 perhaps, then this would be way up in the top tem too, 5th.

Solar storms could wipe out our modern way of life by killing our IT. That itself would kill many people, via riots and fights for the last cans of beans and bottles of water. The most serious solar storms could be even worse. I’ll keep them in my list, at 6th place

Global civil war could become an extinction level event, given human nature. We don’t have to go nuclear to kill a lot of people, and once society degrades to a certain level, well we’ve all watched post-apocalypse movies or played the games. The few left would still fight with each other. I wrote about the Great Western War and how it might result, see

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/machiavelli-and-the-coming-great-western-war/

and such a thing could easily spread globally. I’ll give this 7th place.

A large asteroid strike could happen too, or a comet. Ones capable of extinction level events shouldn’t hit for a while, because we think we know all the ones that could do that. So this goes well down the list at 8th.

Alien invasion is entirely possible and could happen at any time. We’ve been sending out radio signals for quite a while so someone out there might have decided to come see whether our place is nicer than theirs and take over. It hasn’t happened yet so it probably won’t, but then it doesn’t have to be very probably to be in the top ten. 9th will do.

High energy physics research has also been suggested as capable of wiping out our entire planet via exotic particle creation, but the smart people at CERN say it isn’t very likely. Actually, I wasn’t all that convinced or reassured and we’ve only just started messing with real physics so there is plenty of time left to increase the odds of problems. I have a spare place at number 10, so there it goes, with a totally guessed probability of physics research causing a problem every 4000 years.

My top ten list for things likely to cause human extinction, or pretty darn close:

  1. Nuclear war
  2. Highly infectious and lethal virus pandemic
  3. NBIC – deliberate, accidental or lack of foresight (includes smart bacteria, zombie viruses, mind control etc)
  4. Artificial Intelligence, including but not limited to the Terminator scenario
  5. Autonomous Micro-Drones
  6. Solar storm
  7. Global civil war
  8. Comet or asteroid strike
  9. Alien Invasion
  10. Physics research

Not finished yet though. My title was how nigh is the end, not just what might cause it. It’s hard to assign probabilities to each one but someone’s got to do it.  So, I’ll make an arbitrarily wet finger guess in a dark room wearing a blindfold with no explanation of my reasoning to reduce arguments, but hey, that’s almost certainly still more accurate than most climate models, and some people actually believe those. I’m feeling particularly cheerful today so I’ll give my most optimistic assessment.

So, with probabilities of occurrence per year:

  1. Nuclear war:  0.5%
  2. Highly infectious and lethal virus pandemic: 0.4%
  3. NBIC – deliberate, accidental or lack of foresight (includes smart bacteria, zombie viruses, mind control etc): 0.35%
  4. Artificial Intelligence, including but not limited to the Terminator scenario: 0.25%
  5. Autonomous Micro-Drones: 0.2%
  6. Solar storm: 0.1%
  7. Global civil war: 0.1%
  8. Comet or asteroid strike 0.05%
  9. Alien Invasion: 0.04%
  10. Physics research: 0.025%

I hope you agree those are all optimistic. There have been several near misses in my lifetime of number 1, so my 0.5% could have been 2% or 3% given the current state of the world. Also, 0.25% per year means you’d only expect such a thing to happen every 4 centuries so it is a very small chance indeed. However, let’s stick with them and add them up. The cumulative probability of the top ten is 2.015%. Lets add another arbitrary 0.185% for all the risks that didn’t make it into the top ten, rounding the total up to a nice neat 2.2% per year.

Some of the ones above aren’t possible quite yet, but others will vary in probability year to year, but I think that won’t change the guess overall much. If we take a 2.2% probability per year, we have an expectation value of 45.5 years for civilization life expectancy from now. Expectation date for human extinction:

2015.5 + 45.5 years= 2061,

Obviously the probability distribution extends from now to eternity, but don’t get too optimistic, because on these figures there currently is only a 15% chance of surviving past this century.

If you can think of good reasons why my figures are far too pessimistic, by all means make your own guesses, but make them honestly, with a fair and reasonable assessment of how the world looks socially, religiously, politically, the quality of our leaders, human nature etc, and then add them up. You might still be surprised how little time we have left.

I’ll revise my original outlook upwards from ‘a bit doomed’.

We’re reasonably doomed.

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: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/05/04/increasing-internet-capacity-electron-pipes/

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.

The future of death

This one is a cut and paste from my book You Tomorrow.

Although age-related decline can be postponed significantly, it will eventually come. But that is just biological decline. In a few decades, people will have their brains linked to the machine world and much of their mind will be online, and that opens up the strong likelihood that death is not inevitable, and in fact anyone who expects to live past 2070 biologically (and rich people who can get past 2050) shouldn’t need to face death of their mind. Their bodies will eventually die, but their minds can live on, and an android body will replace the biological one they’ve lost.

Death used to be one of the great certainties of life, along with taxes. But unless someone under 35 now is unfortunate enough to die early from accident or disease, they have a good chance of not dying at all. Let’s explore that.

Genetics and other biotechnology will work with advanced materials technology and nanotechnology to limit and even undo damage caused by disease and age, keeping us young for longer, eventually perhaps forever. It remains to be seen how far we get with that vision in the next century, but we can certainly expect some progress in that area. We won’t get biological immortality for a good while, but if you can move into a high quality android body, who cares?

With this combination of technologies locked together with IT in a positive feedback loop, we will certainly eventually develop the technology to enable a direct link between the human brain and the machine, i.e. the descendants of today’s computers. On the computer side, neural networks are already the routine approach to many problems and are based on many of the same principles that neurons in the brain use. As this field develops, we will be able to make a good emulation of biological neurons. As it develops further, it ought to be possible on a sufficiently sophisticated computer to make a full emulation of a whole brain. Progress is already happening in this direction.

Meanwhile, on the human side, nanotechnology and biotechnology will also converge so that we will have the capability to link synthetic technology directly to individual neurons in the brain. We don’t know for certain that this is possible, but it may be possible to measure the behaviour of each individual neuron using this technology and to signal this behaviour to the brain emulation running in the computer, which could then emulate it. Other sensors could similarly measure and allow emulation of the many chemical signalling mechanisms that are used in the brain. The computer could thus produce an almost perfect electronic equivalent of the person’s brain, neuron by neuron. This gives us two things.

Firstly, by doing this, we would have a ‘backup’ copy of the person’s brain, so that in principle, they can carry on thinking, and effectively living, long after their biological body and brain has died. At this point we could claim effective immortality. Secondly, we have a two way link between the brain and the computer which allows thought to be executed on either platform and to be signalled between them.

There is an important difference between the brain and computer already that we may be able to capitalise on. In the brain’s neurons, signals travel at hundreds of metres per second. In a free space optical connection, they travel at hundreds of millions of metres per second, millions of times faster. Switching speeds are similarly faster in electronics. In the brain, cells are also very large compared to the electronic components of the future, so we may be able to reduce the distances over which the signals have to travel by another factor of 100 or more. But this assumes we take an almost exact representation of brain layout. We might be able to do much better than this. In the brain, we don’t appear to use all the neurons, (some are either redundant or have an unknown purpose) and those that we do use in a particular process are often in groups that are far apart. Reconfigurable hardware will be the norm in the 21st century and we may be able to optimize the structure for each type of thought process. Rearranging the useful neurons into more optimal structures should give another huge gain.

This means that our electronic emulation of the brain should behave in a similar way but much faster – maybe billions of times faster! It may be able to process an entire lifetime’s thoughts in a second or two. But even there are several opportunities for vast improvement. The brain is limited in size by a variety of biological constraints. Even if there were more space available, it could not be made much more efficient by making it larger, because of the need for cooling, energy and oxygen supply taking up ever more space and making distances between processors larger. In the computer, these constraints are much more easily addressable, so we could add large numbers of additional neurons to give more intelligence. In the brain, many learning processes stop soon after birth or in childhood. There need be no such constraints in computer emulations, so we could learn new skills as easily as in our infancy. And best of all, the computer is not limited by the memory of a single brain – it has access to all the world’s information and knowledge, and huge amounts of processing outside the brain emulation. Our electronic brain could be literally the size of the planet – the whole internet and all the processing and storage connected to it.

With all these advances, the computer emulation of the brain could be many orders of magnitude superior to its organic equivalent, and yet it might be connected in real time to the original. We would have an effective brain extension in cyberspace, one that gives us immeasurably improved performance and intelligence. Most of our thoughts might happen in the machine world, and because of the direct link, we might experience them as if they had occurred inside our head.

Our brains are in some ways equivalent in nature to how computers were before the age of the internet. They are certainly useful, but communication between them is slow and inefficient. However, when our brains are directly connected to machines, and those machines are networked, then everyone else’s brains are also part of that network, so we have a global network of people’s brains, all connected together, with all the computers too.

So we may soon eradicate death. By the time today’s children are due to die, they will have been using brain extensions for many years, and backups will be taken for granted. Death need not be traumatic for our relatives. They will soon get used to us walking around in an android body. Funerals will be much more fun as the key participant makes a speech about what they are expecting from their new life. Biological death might still be unpleasant, but it need no longer be a career barrier.

In terms of timescales, rich people might have this capability by 2050 and the rest of us some time before 2070. Your life expectancy biologically is increasing every year, so even if you are over 35, you have a pretty good chance of surviving long enough to gain. Half the people alive today are under 35 and will almost certainly not die fully. Many more are under 50 and some of them will live on electronically too. If you are over 50, the chances are that you will be the last generation of your family ever to have a full death.

As a side-note, there are more conventional ways of achieving immortality. Some Egyptian pharaohs are remembered because of their great pyramids. A few philosophers, artists, engineers and scientists have left such great works that they are remembered millennia later. And of course, on a small scale, for the rest of us, making an impression on those around us keeps your memory going a few generations. Writing a book immortalises your words. And you may have a multimedia headstone on your grave, or one that at least links into augmented reality to bring up your old web page of social networking site profile. But frankly, I am with Woody Allen on this one “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying”. I just hope the technology arrives early enough.

Switching people off

A very interesting development has been reported in the discovery of how consciousness works, where neuroscientists stimulating a particular brain region were able to switch a woman’s state of awareness on and off. They said: “We describe a region in the human brain where electrical stimulation reproducibly disrupted consciousness…”

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22329762.700-consciousness-onoff-switch-discovered-deep-in-brain.html.

The region of the brain concerned was the claustrum, and apparently nobody had tried stimulating it before, although Francis Crick and Christof Koch had suggested the region would likely be important in achieving consciousness. Apparently, the woman involved in this discovery was also missing some of her hippocampus, and that may be a key factor, but they don’t know for sure yet.

Mohamed Koubeissi and his the team at the George Washington university in Washington DC were investigating her epilepsy and stimulated her claustrum area with high frequency electrical impulses. When they did so, the woman lost consciousness, no longer responding to any audio or visual stimuli, just staring blankly into space. They verified that she was not having any epileptic activity signs at the time, and repeated the experiment with similar results over two days.

The team urges caution and recommends not jumping to too many conclusions. They did observe the obvious potential advantages as an anesthesia substitute if it can be made generally usable.

As a futurologist, it is my job to look as far down the road as I can see, and imagine as much as I can. Then I filter out all the stuff that is nonsensical, or doesn’t have a decent potential social or business case or as in this case, where research teams suggest that it is too early to draw conclusions. I make exceptions where it seems that researchers are being over-cautious or covering their asses or being PC or unimaginative, but I have no evidence of that in this case. However, the other good case for making exceptions is where it is good fun to jump to conclusions. Anyway, it is Saturday, I’m off work, so in the great words of Dr Emmett Brown in ‘Back to the future’:  “Well, I figured, what the hell.”

OK, IF it works for everyone without removing parts of the brain, what will we do with it and how?

First, it is reasonable to assume that we can produce electrical stimulation at specific points in the brain by using external kit. Trans-cranial magnetic stimulation might work, or perhaps implants may be possible using injection of tiny particles that migrate to the right place rather than needing significant surgery. Failing those, a tiny implant or two via a fine needle into the right place ought to do the trick. Powering via induction should work. So we will be able to produce the stimulation, once the sucker victim subject has the device implanted.

I guess that could happen voluntarily, or via a court ordered protective device, as a condition of employment or immigration, or conditional release from prison, or a supervision order, or as a violent act or in war.

Imagine if government demands a legal right to access it, for security purposes and to ensure your comfort and safety, of course.

If you think 1984 has already gone too far, imagine a government or police officer that can switch you off if you are saying or thinking the wrong thing. Automated censorship devices could ensure that nobody discusses prohibited topics.

Imagine if people on the street were routinely switched off as a VIP passes to avoid any trouble for them.

Imagine a future carbon-reduction law where people are immobilized for an hour or two each day during certain periods. There might be a quota for how long you are allowed to be conscious each week to limit your environmental footprint.

In war, captives could have devices implanted to make them easy to control, simply turned off for packing and transport to a prison camp. A perimeter fence could be replaced by a line in the sand. If a prisoner tries to cross it, they are rendered unconscious automatically and put back where they belong.

Imagine a higher class of mugger that doesn’t like violence much and prefers to switch victims off before stealing their valuables.

Imagine being able to switch off for a few hours to pass the time on a long haul flight. Airlines could give discounts to passengers willing to be disabled and therefore less demanding of attention.

Imagine  a couple or a group of friends, or a fetish club, where people can turn each other off at will. Once off, other people can do anything they please with them – use them as dolls, as living statues or as mannequins, posing them, dressing them up. This is not an adult blog so just use your imagination – it’s pretty obvious what people will do and what sorts of clubs will emerge if an off-switch is feasible, making people into temporary toys.

Imagine if you got an illegal hacking app and could freeze the other people in your vicinity. What would you do?

Imagine if your off-switch is networked and someone else has a remote control or hacks into it.

Imagine if an AI manages to get control of such a system.

Having an off-switch installed could open a new world of fun, but it could also open up a whole new world for control by the authorities, crime control, censorship or abuse by terrorists and thieves and even pranksters.

 

 

The future of biometric identification and authentication

If you work in IT security, the first part of this will not be news to you, skip to the section on the future. Otherwise, the first sections look at the current state of biometrics and some of what we already know about their security limitations.

Introduction

I just read an article on fingerprint recognition. Biometrics has been hailed by some as a wonderful way of determining someone’s identity, and by others as a security mechanism that is far too easy to spoof. I generally fall in the second category. I don’t mind using it for simple unimportant things like turning on my tablet, on which I keep nothing sensitive, but so far I would never trust it as part of any system that gives access to my money or sensitive files.

My own history is that voice recognition still doesn’t work for me, fingerprints don’t work for me, and face recognition doesn’t work for me. Iris scan recognition does, but I don’t trust that either. Let’s take a quick look at conventional biometrics today and the near future.

Conventional biometrics

Fingerprint recognition.

I use a Google Nexus, made by Samsung. Samsung is in the news today because their Galaxy S5 fingerprint sensor was hacked by SRLabs minutes after release, not the most promising endorsement of their security competence.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/samsung/10769478/Galaxy-S5-fingerprint-scanner-hacked.html

This article says the sensor is used in the user authentication to access Paypal. That is really not good. I expect quite a few engineers at Samsung are working very hard indeed today. I expect they thought they had tested it thoroughly, and their engineers know a thing or two about security. Every engineer knows you can photograph a fingerprint and print a replica in silicone or glue or whatever. It’s the first topic of discussion at any Biometrics 101 meeting. I would assume they tested for that. I assume they would not release something they expected to bring instant embarrassment on their company, especially something failing by that classic mechanism. Yet according to this article, that seems to be the case. Given that Samsung is one of the most advanced technology companies out there, and that they can be assumed to have made reasonable effort to get it right, that doesn’t offer much hope for fingerprint recognition. If they don’t do it right, who will?

My own experience with fingerprint recognition history is having to join a special queue every day at Universal Studios because their fingerprint recognition entry system never once recognised me or my child. So I have never liked it because of false negatives. For those people for whom it does work, their fingerprints are all over the place, some in high quality, and can easily be obtained and replicated.

As just one token in multi-factor authentication, it may yet have some potential, but as a primary access key, not a chance. It will probably remain be a weak authenticator.

Face recognition

There are many ways of recognizing faces – visible light, infrared or UV, bone structure, face shapes, skin texture patterns, lip-prints, facial gesture sequences… These could be combined in simultaneous multi-factor authentication. The technology isn’t there yet, but it offers more hope than fingerprint recognition. Using the face alone is no good though. You can make masks from high-resolution photographs of people, and photos could be made using the same spectrum known to be used in recognition systems. Adding gestures is a nice idea, but in a world where cameras are becoming ubiquitous, it wouldn’t be too hard to capture the sequence you use. Pretending that a mask is alive by adding sensing and then using video to detect any inspection for pulse or blood flows or gesture requests and then to provide appropriate response is entirely feasible, though it would deter casual entry. So I am not encouraged to believe it would be secure unless and until some cleverer innovation occurs.

What I do know is that I set my tablet up to recognize me and it works about one time in five. The rest of the time I have to wait till it fails and then type in a PIN. So on average, it actually slows entry down. False negative again. Giving lots of false negatives without the reward of avoiding false positives is not a good combination.

Iris scans

I was a subject in one of the early trials for iris recognition. It seemed very promising. It always recognized me and never confused me with someone else. That was a very small scale trial though so I’d need a lot more convincing before I let it near my bank account. I saw the problem of replication an iris using a high quality printer and was assured that that couldn’t work because the system checks for the eye being alive by watching for jitter and shining a light and watching for pupil contraction. Call me too suspicious but I didn’t and don’t find that at all reassuring. It won’t be too long before we can make a thin sheet high-res polymer display layered onto a polymer gel underlayer that contracts under electric field, with light sensors built in and some software analysis for real time response. You could even do it as part of a mask with the rest of the face also faithfully mimicking all the textures, real-time responses, blood flow mimicking, gesture sequences and so on. If the prize is valuable enough to justify the effort, every aspect of the eyes, face and fingerprints could be mimicked. It may be more Mission Impossible than casual high street robbery but I can’t yet have any confidence that any part of the face or gestures would offer good security.

DNA

We hear frequently that DNA is a superbly secure authenticator. Every one of your cells can identify you. You almost certainly leave a few cells at the scene of a crime so can be caught, and because your DNA is unique, it must have been you that did it. Perfect, yes? And because it is such a perfect authenticator, it could be used confidently to police entry to secure systems.

No! First, even for a criminal trial, only a few parts of your DNA are checked, they don’t do an entire genome match. That already brings the chances of a match down to millions rather than billions. A chance of millions to one sounds impressive to a jury until you look at the figure from the other direction. If you have 1 in 70 million chance of a match, a prosecution barrister might try to present that as a 70 million to 1 chance that you’re guilty and a juror may well be taken in. The other side of that is that 100 people of the 7 billion would have that same 1 in 70 million match. So your competent defense barrister should  present that as only a 1 in 100 chance that it was you. Not quite so impressive.

I doubt a DNA system used commercially for security systems would be as sophisticated as one used in forensic labs. It will be many years before an instant response using large parts of your genome could be made economic. But what then? Still no. You leave DNA everywhere you go, all day, every day. I find it amazing that it is permitted as evidence in trials, because it is so easy to get hold of someone’s hairs or skin flakes. You could gather hairs or skin flakes from any bus seat or hotel bathroom or bed. Any maid in a big hotel or any airline cabin attendant could gather packets of tissue and hair samples and in many cases could even attach a name to them.  Your DNA could be found at the scene of any crime having been planted there by someone who simply wanted to deflect attention from themselves and get someone else convicted instead of them. They don’t even need to know who you are. And the police can tick the crime solved box as long as someone gets convicted. It doesn’t have to be the culprit. Think you have nothing to fear if you have done nothing wrong? Think again.

If someone wants to get access to an account, but doesn’t mind whose, perhaps a DNA-based entry system would offer good potential, because people perceive it as secure, whereas it simply isn’t. So it might not be paired with other secure factors. Going back to the maid or cabin attendant. Both are low paid. A few might welcome some black market bonuses if they can collect good quality samples with a name attached, especially a name of someone staying in a posh suite, probably with a nice account or two, or privy to valuable information. Especially if they also gather their fingerprints at the same time. Knowing who they are, getting a high res pic of their face and eyes off the net, along with some voice samples from videos, then making a mask, iris replica, fingerprint and if you’re lucky also buying video of their gesture patterns from the black market, you could make an almost perfect multi-factor biometric spoof.

It also becomes quickly obvious that the people who are the most valuable or important are also the people who are most vulnerable to such high quality spoofing.

So I am not impressed with biometric authentication. It sounds good at first, but biometrics are too easy to access and mimic. Other security vulnerabilities apply in sequence too. If your biometric is being measured and sent across a network for authentication, all the other usual IT vulnerabilities still apply. The signal could be intercepted and stored, replicated another time, and you can’t change your body much, so once your iris has been photographed or your fingerprint stored and hacked, it is useless for ever. The same goes for the other biometrics.

Dynamic biometrics

Signatures, gestures and facial expressions offer at least the chance to change them. If you signature has been used, you could start using a new one. You could sign different phrases each time, as a personal one-time key. You could invent new gesture sequences. These are really just an equivalent to passwords. You have to remember them and which one you use for which system. You don’t want a street seller using your signature to verify a tiny transaction and then risk the seller using the same signature to get right into your account.

Summary of status quo

This all brings us back to the most basic of security practice. You can only use static biometrics safely as a small part of a multi-factor system, and you have to use different dynamic biometrics such as gestures or signatures on a one time basis for each system, just as you do with passwords. At best, they provide a simple alternative to a simple password. At worst, they pair low actual security with the illusion of high security, and that is a very bad combination indeed.

So without major progress, biometrics in its conventional meaning doesn’t seem to have much of a future. If it is not much more than a novelty or a toy, and can only be used safely in conjunction with some proper security system, why bother at all?

The future

You can’t easily change your eyes or your DNA or you skin, but you can add things to your body that are similar to biometrics or interact with it but offer the flexibility and replaceability of electronics.

I have written frequently about active skin, using the skin as a platform for electronics, and I believe the various layers of it offer the best potential for security technology.

Long ago, RFID chips implants became commonplace in pets and some people even had them inserted too. RFID variants could easily be printed on a membrane and stuck onto the skin surface. They could be used for one time keys too, changing each time they are used. Adding accelerometers, magnetometers, pressure sensors or even location sensors could all offer ways of enhancing security options. Active skin allows easy combination of fingerprints with other factors.

 

Ultra-thin and uninvasive security patches could be stuck onto the skin, and could not be removed without damaging them, so would offer a potentially valuable platform. Pretty much any kinds and combinations of electronics could be used in them. They could easily be made to have a certain lifetime. Very thin ones could wash off after a few days so could be useful for theme park entry during holidays or for short term contractors. Banks could offer stick on electronic patches that change fundamentally how they work every month, making it very hard to hack them.

Active skin can go inside the skin too, not just on the surface. You could for example have an electronic circuit or an array of micro-scale magnets embedded among the skin cells in your fingertip. Your fingerprint alone could easily be copied and spoofed, but not the accompanying electronic interactivity from the active skin that can be interrogated at the same time. Active skin could measure all sorts of properties of the body too, so personal body chemistry at a particular time could be used. In fact, medical monitoring is the first key development area for active skin, so we’re likely to have a lot of body data available that could make new biometrics. The key advantage here is that skin cells are very large compared to electronic feature sizes. A decent processor or memory can be made around the size of one skin cell and many could be combined using infrared optics within the skin. Temperature or chemical gradients between inner and outer skin layers could be used to power devices too.

If you are signing something, the signature could be accompanied by a signal from the fingertip, sufficiently close to the surface being signed to be useful. A ring on a finger could also offer a voluminous security electronics platform to house any number of sensors, memory and processors.

Skin itself offers a reasonable communications route, able to carry a few Mbit’s of data stream, so touching something could allow a lot of data transfer very quickly. A smart watch or any other piece of digital jewelry or active skin security patch could use your fingertip to send an authentication sequence. The watch would know who you are by constant proximity and via its own authentication tools. It could easily be unauthorized instantly when detached or via a remote command.

Active makeup offer a novel mechanism too. Makeup will soon exist that uses particles that can change color or alignment under electronic control, potentially allowing video rate pattern changes. While that makes for fun makeup, it also allows for sophisticated visual authentication sequences using one-time keys. Makeup doesn’t have to be confined only to the face of course, and security makeup could maybe be used on the forearm or hands. Combining with static biometrics, many-factor authentication could be implemented.

I believe active skin, using membranes added or printed onto and even within the skin, together with the use of capsules, electronic jewelry, and even active makeup offers the future potential to implement extremely secure personal authentication systems. This pseudo-biometric authentication offers infinitely more flexibility and changeability than the body itself, but because it is attached to the body, offers much the same ease of use and constant presence as other biometrics.

Biometrics may be pretty useless as it is, but the field does certainly have a future. We just need to add some bits. The endless potential variety of those bits and their combinations makes the available creativity space vast.

 

 

It’s homeopathy awareness week. So be aware: it’s total nonsense

Homeopathy amazes me by the number of otherwise intelligent people that believe in it. Some others do too, such as the UK’s Minister for Health Jeremy Hunt. How he keeps such a job while advocating such beliefs is a mystery.

Homeopathy is total nonsense. Proper scientists agree that it doesn’t work. There is no reliable scientific evidence for it, and no means by which it could possibly work other than invoking a placebo effect. It supposedly relies on dilution of some agent to such a point that not a single molecule of that agent remains.

If you believe in it, try this thought experiment, or do it for real if you prefer. Either way it will be at least as effective and much cheaper than paying for homeopathic treatment: collect a small bottle of seawater next time you go to a beach, preferably not at a sewage outfall (if you don’t live near the sea, best do the thought experiment). Seawater is of course a very highly diluted solution of anything that has ever flowed into it, including waste remedies from homeopathists at the various stages of dilution, so presumably every drop of it would work for all of the possible ailments that homeopathy can be used for, except that one drop will cover all of them, so it’s far better. So add a tiny drop of the seawater to a glass of fresh water and drink it – no more than that in case your local seawater is polluted. The glass of water must have the same molecular entanglement or quantum interconnectedness or magic or whatever it is as every possible homeopathic remedy and therefore cure every possible thing that homeopathy can cure. Treatment complete. Spend your savings on something more useful. If you have a real ailment, go and see a real doctor.