Category Archives: packaging

Will urbanization continue or will we soon reach peak city?

For a long time, people have been moving from countryside into cities. The conventional futurist assumption is that this trend will continue, with many mega-cities, some with mega-buildings. I’ve consulted occasionally on future buildings and future cities from a technological angle, but I’ve never really challenged the assumption that urbanization will continue. It’s always good  to challenge our assumptions occasionally, as things can change quite rapidly.

There are forces in both directions. Let’s list those that support urbanisation first.

People are gregarious. They enjoy being with other people. They enjoy eating out and having coffees with friends. They like to go shopping. They enjoy cinemas and theatre and art galleries and museums. They still have workplaces. Many people want to live close to these facilities, where public transport is available or driving times are relatively short. There are exceptions of course, but these still generally apply.

Even though many people can and do work from home sometimes, most of them still go to work, where they actually meet colleagues, and this provides much-valued social contact, and in spite of recent social trends, still provides opportunities to meet new friends and partners. Similarly, they can and do talk to friends via social media or video calls, but still enjoy getting together for real.

Increasing population produces extra pressure on the environment, and governments often try to minimize it by restricting building on green field land. Developers are strongly encouraged to build on brown field sites as far as possible.

Now the case against.

Truly Immersive Interaction

Talking on the phone, even to a tiny video image, is less emotionally rich than being there with someone. It’s fine for chats in between physical meetings of course, but the need for richer interaction still requires ‘being there’. Augmented reality will soon bring headsets that provide high quality 3D life-sized images of the person, and some virtual reality kit will even allow analogs of physical interaction via smart gloves or body suits, making social comms a bit better. Further down the road, active skin will enable direct interaction with the peripheral nervous system to produce exactly the same nerve signals as an actual hug or handshake or kiss, while active contact lenses will provide the same resolution as your retina wherever you gaze. The long term is therefore communication which has the other person effectively right there with you, fully 3D, fully rendered to the capability of your eyes, so you won’t be able to tell they aren’t. If you shake hands or hug or kiss, you’ll feel it just the same as if they were there too. You will still know they are not actually there, so it will never be quite as emotionally rich as if they were, but it can get pretty close. Close enough perhaps that it won’t really matter to most people most of the time that it’s virtual.

In the same long term, many AIs will have highly convincing personalities, some will even have genuine emotions and be fully conscious. I blogged recently on how that might happen if you don’t believe it’s possible:

None of the technology required for this is far away, and I believe a large IT company could produce conscious machines with almost human-level AI within a couple of years of starting the project. It won’t happen until they do, but when one starts trying seriously to do it, it really won’t be long. That means that as well as getting rich emotional interaction from other humans via networks, we’ll also get lots from AI, either in our homes, or on the cloud, and some will be in robots in our homes too.

This adds up to a strong reduction in the need to live in a city for social reasons.

Going to cinemas, theatre, shopping etc will also all benefit from this truly immersive interaction. As well as that, activities that already take place in the home, such as gaming will also advance greatly into more emotionally and sensory intensive experiences, along with much enhanced virtual tourism and virtual world tourism, virtual clubbing & pubbing, which barely even exist yet but could become major activities in the future.

Socially inclusive self-driving cars

Some people have very little social interaction because they can’t drive and don’t live close to public transport stops. In some rural areas, buses may only pass a stop once a week. Our primitive 20th century public transport systems thus unforgivably exclude a great many people from social inclusion, even though the technology needed to solve that has existed for many years.  Leftist value systems that much prefer people who live in towns or close to frequent public transport over everyone else must take a lot of the blame for the current epidemic of loneliness. It is unreasonable to expect those value systems to be replaced by more humane and equitable ones any time soon, but thankfully self-driving cars will bypass politicians and bureaucrats and provide transport for everyone. The ‘little old lady’ who can’t walk half a mile to wait 20 minutes in freezing rain for an uncomfortable bus can instead just ask her AI to order a car and it will pick her up at her front door and take her to exactly where she wants to go, then do the same for her return home whenever she wants. Once private sector firms like Uber provide cheap self-driving cars, they will be quickly followed by other companies, and later by public transport providers. Redundant buses may finally become extinct, replaced by better socially inclusive transport, large fleets of self-driving or driverless vehicles. People will be able to live anywhere and still be involved in society. As attendance at social events improves, so they will become feasible even in small communities, so there will be less need to go into a town to find one. Even political involvement might increase. Loneliness will decline as social involvement increases, and we’ll see many other social problems decline too.

Distribution drones

We hear a lot about upcoming redundancy caused by AI, but far less about the upside. AI might mean someone is no longer needed in an office, but it also makes it easier to set up a company and run it, taking what used to be just a hobby and making it into a small business. Much of the everyday admin and logistics can be automated Many who would never describe themselves as entrepreneurs might soon be making things and selling them from home and this AI-enabled home commerce will bring in the craft society. One of the big problems is getting a product to the customer. Postal services and couriers are usually expensive and very likely to lose or damage items. Protecting objects from such damage may require much time and expense packing it. Even if objects are delivered, there may be potential fraud with no-payers. Instead of this antiquated inefficient and expensive system, drone delivery could collect an object and take it to a local customer with minimal hassle and expense. Block-chain enables smart contracts that can be created and managed by AI and can directly link delivery to payment, with fully verified interaction video if necessary. If one happens, the other happens. A customer might return a damaged object, but at least can’t keep it and deny receipt. Longer distance delivery can still use cheap drone pickup to take packages to local logistics centers in smart crates with fully block-chained g-force and location detectors that can prove exactly who damaged it and where. Drones could be of any size, and of course self-driving cars or pods can easily fill the role too if smaller autonomous drones are inappropriate.

Better 3D printing technology will help to accelerate the craft economy, making it easier to do crafts by upskilling people and filling in some of their skill gaps. Someone with visual creativity but low manual skill might benefit greatly from AI model creation and 3D printer manufacture, followed by further AI assistance in marketing, selling and distribution. 3D printing might also reduce the need to go to town to buy some things.

Less shopping in high street

This is already obvious. Online shopping will continue to become a more personalized and satisfying experience, smarter, with faster delivery and easier returns, while high street decline accelerates. Every new wave of technology makes online better, and high street stores seem unable or unwilling to compete, in spite of my wonderful ‘6s guide’:

Those that are more agile still suffer decline of shopper numbers as the big stores fail to attract them so even smart stores will find it harder to survive.

Improving agriculture

Farming technology has doubled the amount of food production per hectare in the last few decades. That may happen again by mid-century. Meanwhile, the trend is towards higher vegetable and lower meat consumption. Even with an increased population, less land will be needed to grow our food. As well as reducing the need to protect green belts, that will also allow some of our countryside to be put under better environmental stewardship programs, returning much of it to managed nature. What countryside we have will be healthier and prettier, and people will be drawn to it more.

Improving social engineering

Some objections to green-field building can be reduced by making better use of available land. Large numbers of new homes are needed and they will certainly need some green field to be used, but given the factors already listed above, a larger number of smaller communities might be better approach. Amazingly, in spite of decades of dating technology proving that people can be matched up easily using AI, there is still no obvious use of similar technology to establish new communities by blending together people who are likely to form effective communities. Surely it must be feasible to advertise a new community building program that wants certain kinds of people in it – even an Australian style points system might work sometimes. Unless sociologists have done nothing for the past decades, they must surely know what types of people work well together by now? If the right people live close to each other, social involvement will be high, loneliness low, health improved, care costs minimized, the need for longer distance travel reduced and environmental impact minimized. How hard can it be?

Improving building technology such as 3D printing and robotics will allow more rapid construction, so that when people are ready and willing to move, property suited to them can be available soon.

Lifestyle changes also mean that homes don’t need to be as big. A phone today does what used to need half a living room of technology and space. With wall-hung displays and augmented reality, decor can be partly virtual, and even a 450 sq ft apartment is fine as a starter place, half as big as was needed a few decades ago, and that could be 3D printed and kitted out in a few days.

Even demographic changes favor smaller communities. As wealth increases, people have smaller families, i.e fewer kids. That means fewer years doing the school run, so less travel, less need to be in a town. Smaller schools in smaller communities can still access specialist lessons via the net.

Increasing wealth also encourages and enables people to a higher quality of life. People who used to live in a crowded city street might prefer a more peaceful and spacious existence in a more rural setting and will increasingly be able to afford to move. Short term millennial frustrations with property prices won’t last, as typical 2.5% annual growth more than doubles wealth by 2050 (though automation and its assorted consequences will impact on the distribution of that wealth).

Off-grid technology

Whereas one of the main reasons to live in urban areas was easy access to telecomms, energy and water supply and sewerage infrastructure, all of these can now be achieved off-grid. Mobile networks provide even broadband access to networks. Solar or wind provide easy energy supply. Water can be harvested out of the air even in arid areas ( and human and pet waste can be used as biomass for energy supply too, leaving fertilizer as residue.

There are also huge reasons that people won’t want to live in cities, and they will also cause deurbansisation.

The biggest by far in the problem of epidemics. As antibiotic resistance increases, disease will be a bigger problem. We may find good antibiotics alternatives but we may not. If not, then we may see some large cities where disease runs rampant and kills hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps even millions. Many scientists have listed pandemics among their top ten threats facing humanity. Obviously, being in a large city will incur a higher risk of becoming a victim, so once one or two incidents have occurred, many people will look for options to leave cities everywhere. Linked to this is bioterrorism, where the disease is deliberate, perhaps created in a garden shed by someone who learned the craft in one of today’s bio-hacking clubs. Disease might be aimed at a particular race, gender or lifestyle group or it may simply be designed to be as contagious and lethal as possible to everyone.

I’m still not saying we won’t have lots of people living in cities. I am saying that more people will feel less need to live in cities and will instead be able to find a small community where they can be happier in the countryside. Consequently, many will move out of cities, back to more rural living in smaller, friendlier communities that improving technology makes even more effective.

Urbanization will slow down, and may well go into reverse. We may reach peak city soon.




We need to stop xenoestrogen pollution

Endocrine disruptors in the environment are becoming more abundant due to a wide variety of human-related activities over the last few decades. They affect mechanisms by which the body’s endocrine system generates and responds to hormones, by attaching to receptors in similar ways to natural hormones. Minuscule quantities of hormones can have very substantial effects on the body so even very diluted pollutants may have significant effects. A sub-class called xenoestrogens specifically attach to estrogen receptors in the body and by doing so, can generate similar effects to estrogen in both women and men, affecting not just women’s breasts and wombs but also bone growth, blood clotting, immune systems and neurological systems in both men and women. Since the body can’t easily detach them from their receptors, they can sometimes exert a longer-lived effect than estrogen, remaining in the body for long periods and in women may lead to estrogen dominance. They are also alleged to contribute to prostate and testicular cancer, obesity, infertility and diabetes. Most notably, mimicking sex hormones, they also affect puberty and sex and gender-specific development.

Xenoestrogens can arise from breakdown or release of many products in the petrochemical and plastics industries. They may be emitted from furniture, carpets, paints or plastic packaging, especially if that packaging is heated, e.g. in preparing ready-meals. Others come from women taking contraceptive pills if drinking water treatment is not effective enough. Phthalates are a major group of synthetic xenoestrogens – endocrine-disrupting estrogen-mimicking chemicals, along with BPA and PCBs. Phthalates are present in cleaning products, shampoos, cosmetics, fragrances and other personal care products as well as soft, squeezable plastics often used in packaging but some studies have also found them in foodstuffs such as dairy products and imported spices. There have been efforts to outlaw some, but others persist because of lack of easy alternatives and lack of regulation, so most people are exposed to them, in doses linked to their lifestyles. Google ‘phthalates’ or ‘xenoestrogen’ and you’ll find lots of references to alleged negative effects on intelligence, fertility, autism, asthma, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neurological development and birth defects. It’s the gender and IQ effects I’ll look at in this blog, but obviously the other effects are also important.

‘Gender-bending’ effects have been strongly suspected since 2005, with the first papers on endocrine disrupting chemicals appearing in the early 1990s. Some fish notably change gender when exposed to phthalates while human studies have found significant feminizing effects from prenatal exposure in young boys too (try googling “human phthalates gender” if you want references).  They are also thought likely to be a strong contributor to greatly reducing sperm counts across the male population. This issue is of huge importance because of its effects on people’s lives, but its proper study is often impeded by LGBT activist groups. It is one thing to champion LGBT rights, quite another to defend pollution that may be influencing people’s gender and sexuality. SJWs should not be advocating that human sexuality and in particular the lifelong dependence on medication and surgery required to fill gender-change demands should be arbitrarily imposed on people by chemical industry pollution – such a stance insults the dignity of LGBT people. Any exposure to life-changing chemicals should be deliberate and measured. That also requires that we fully understand the effects of each kind of chemical so they also should not be resisting studies of these effects.

The evidence is there. The numbers of people saying they identify as the opposite gender or are gender fluid has skyrocketed in the years since these chemicals appeared, as has the numbers of men describing themselves as gay or bisexual. That change in self-declared sexuality has been accompanied by visible changes. An AI recently demonstrated better than 90% success at visually identifying gay and bisexual men from photos alone, indicating that it is unlikely to be just a ‘social construct’. Hormone-mimicking chemicals are the most likely candidate for an environmental factor that could account for both increasing male homosexuality and feminizing gender identity.

Gender dysphoria causes real problems for some people – misery, stress, and in those who make a full physical transition, sometimes post-op regrets and sometimes suicide. Many male-to-female transsexuals are unhappy that even after surgery and hormones, they may not look 100% feminine or may require ongoing surgery to maintain a feminine appearance. Change often falls short of their hopes, physically and psychologically. If xenoestrogen pollution is causing severe unhappiness, even if that is only for some of those whose gender has been affected, then we should fix it. Forcing acceptance and equality on others only superficially addresses part of their problems, leaving a great deal of their unhappiness behind.

Not all affected men are sufficiently affected to demand gender change. Some might gladly change if it were possible to change totally and instantly to being a natural woman without the many real-life issues and compromises offered by surgery and hormones, but choose to remain as men and somehow deal with their dysphoria as the lesser of two problems. That impacts on every individual differently. I’ve always kept my own feminine leanings to being cyber-trans (assuming a female identity online or in games) with my only real-world concession being wearing feminine glasses styles. Whether I’m more feminine or less masculine than I might have been doesn’t bother me; I am happy with who I am; but I can identify with transgender forces driving others and sympathize with all the problems that brings them, whatever their choices.

Gender and sexuality are not the only things affected. Xenoestrogens are also implicated in IQ-reducing effects. IQ reduction is worrying for society if it means fewer extremely intelligent people making fewer major breakthroughs, though it is less of a personal issue. Much of the effect is thought to occur while still in the womb, though effects continue through childhood and some even into adulthood. Therefore individuals couldn’t detect an effect of being denied a potentially higher IQ and since there isn’t much of a link between IQ and happiness, you could argue that it doesn’t matter much, but on the other hand, I’d be pretty miffed if I’ve been cheated out of a few IQ points, especially when I struggle so often on the very edge of understanding something. 

Gender and IQ effects on men would have quite different socioeconomic consequences. While feminizing effects might influence spending patterns, or the numbers of men eager to join the military or numbers opposing military activity, IQ effects might mean fewer top male engineers and top male scientists.

It is not only an overall IQ reduction that would be significant. Studies have often claimed that although men and women have the same average IQ, the distribution is different and that more men lie at the extremes, though that is obviously controversial and rapidly becoming a taboo topic. But if men are being psychologically feminized by xenoestrogens, then their IQ distribution might be expected to align more closely with female IQ distributions too, the extremes brought closer to centre.  In that case, male IQ range-compression would further reduce the numbers of top male scientists and engineers on top of any reduction caused by a shift. 

The extremes are very important. As a lifelong engineer, my experience has been that a top engineer might contribute as much as many average ones. If people who might otherwise have been destined to be top scientists and engineers are being prevented from becoming so by the negative effects of pollution, that is not only a personal tragedy (albeit a phantom tragedy, never actually experienced), but also a big loss for society, which develops slower than should have been the case. Even if that society manages to import fine minds from elsewhere, their home country must lose out. This matters less as AI improves, but it still matters.

Looking for further evidence of this effect, one outcome would be that women in affected areas would be expected to account for a higher proportion of top engineers and scientists, and a higher proportion of first class degrees in Math and Physical Sciences, once immigrants are excluded. Tick. (Coming from different places and cultures, first generation immigrants are less likely to have been exposed in the womb to the same pollutants so would not be expected to suffer as much of the same effects. Second generation immigrants would include many born to mothers only recently exposed, so would also be less affected on average. 3rd generation immigrants who have fully integrated would show little difference.)

We’d also expect to see a reducing proportion of tech startups founded by men native to regions affected by xenoestrogens. Tick. In fact, 80% of Silicon Valley startups are by first or second generation immigrants. 

We’d also expect to see relatively fewer patents going to men native to regions affected by xenoestrogens. Erm, no idea.

We’d also expect technology progress to be a little slower and for innovations to arrive later than previously expected based on traditional development rates. Tick. I’m not the only one to think engineers are getting less innovative.

So, there is some evidence for this hypothesis, some hard, some colloquial. Lower inventiveness and scientific breakthrough rate is a problem for both human well-being and the economy. The problems will continue to grow until this pollution is fixed, and will persist until the (two) generations affected have retired. Some further outcomes can easily be predicted:

Unless AI proceeds well enough to make a human IQ drop irrelevant, and it might, then we should expect that having enjoyed centuries of the high inventiveness that made them the rich nations they are today, the West in particular would be set on a path to decline unless it brings in inventive people from elsewhere. To compensate for decreasing inventiveness, even in 3rd generation immigrants (1st and 2nd are largely immune), they would need to attract ongoing immigration to survive in a competitive global environment. So one consequence of this pollution is that it requires increasing immigration to maintain a prosperous economy. As AI increases its effect on making up deficiencies, this effect would drop in importance, but will still have an impact until AI exceeds the applicable intelligence levels of the top male scientists and engineers. By ‘applicable’, I’m recognizing that different aspects of intelligence might be appropriate in inventiveness and insight levels, and a simple IQ measurement might not be sufficient indicator.

Another interesting aspect of AI/gender interaction is that AI is currently being criticised from some directions for having bias, because it uses massive existing datasets for its training. These datasets contain actual data rather than ideological spin, so ‘insights’ are therefore not always politically correct. Nevertheless, they but could be genuinely affected by actual biases in data collection. While there may well be actual biases in such training datasets, it is not easy to determine what they are without having access to a correct dataset to compare with. That introduces a great deal of subjectivity, because ‘correct’ is a very politically sensitive term. There would be no agreement on what the correct rules would be for dataset collection or processing. Pressure groups will always demand favour for their favorite groups and any results that suggest that any group is better or worse than any other will always meet with objections from activists, who will demand changes in the rules until their own notion of ‘equality’ results. If AI is to be trained to be politically correct rather than to reflect the ‘real world’, that will inevitably reduce any correlation between AI’s world models and actual reality, and reduce its effective general intelligence. I’d be very much against sabotaging AI by brainwashing it to conform to current politically correct fashions, but then I don’t control AI companies. PC distortion of AI may result from any pressure group or prejudice – race, gender, sexuality, age, religion, political leaning and so on. Now that the IT industry seems to have already caved in to PC demands, the future for AI will be inevitably sub-optimal.

A combination of feminization, decreasing heterosexuality and fast-reducing sperm counts would result in reducing reproductive rate among xenoestrogen exposed communities, again with 1st and 2nd generation immigrants immune. That correlates well with observations, albeit there are other possible explanations. With increasing immigration, relatively higher reproductive rates among recent immigrants, and reducing reproduction rates among native (3rd generation or more) populations, high ethnic replacement of native populations will occur. Racial mix will become very different very quickly, with groups resident longest being displaced most. Allowing xenoestrogens to remain is therefore a sort of racial suicide, reverse ethnic cleansing. I make no value judgement here on changing racial mix, I’m just predicting it.

With less testosterone and more men resisting military activities, exposed communities will also become more militarily vulnerable and consequently less influential.

Now increasingly acknowledged, this pollution is starting to be tackled. A few of these chemicals have been banned and more are likely to follow. If successful, effects will start to disappear, and new babies will no longer be affected. But even that will  create another problem, with two generations of people with significantly different characteristics from those before and after them. These two generations will have substantially more transgender people, more feminine men, and fewer macho men than those following. Their descendants may have all the usual inter-generational conflicts but with a few others added.

LGBTQ issues are topical and ubiquitous. Certainly we must aim for a society that treats everyone with equality and dignity as far as possible, but we should also aim for one where people’s very nature isn’t dictated by pollution.


Colour changing cars, everyday objects and makeup shows how graphene can be used to make displays with each pixel changing colour according to mechanical deformation.

Meanwhile, Lexus have just created a car with a shell covered in LEDs so it can act as a massive display.

In 2014 I wrote about using polymer LED displays for future Minis so it’s nice to see another prediction come true.

Looking at the mechanical pixels though, it is clear that mechanical pixels could respond directly to sound, or to turbulence of passing air, plus other vibration that arises from motion on a road surface, or the engine. Car panel colours could change all the time powered by ambient energy. Coatings on any solid objects could follow, so people might have plenty of shimmering colours in their everyday environment. Could. Not sure I want it, but they could.

With sound as a control system, sound wave generators at the edges or underneath such surfaces could produce a wide variety of pleasing patterns. We could soon have furniture that does a good impression of being a cuttlefish.

I often get asked about smart makeup, on which I’ve often spoken since the late 90s. Thin film makeup displays could use this same tech. So er, we could have people with makeup pretending to be cuttlefish too. I think I’ll quit while I’m ahead.

Smart packaging: Acoustic sterilisation

I should have written this on the ides of March, but hey ho. I was discussing packaging this morning for an IoT event.

Imagine a bacterium sitting on a package on a supermarket shelf is called Julius Caesar. Now imagine Brutus coming along with a particularly sharp knife and stabbing him hundreds of times. That’s my idea, just scaled down a bit.


This started as a slight adaptation of an idea I developed for Dunlop a few years ago to make variable grip tires. (Still waiting for Dunlop to make those, so maybe some other tire company might pick up the idea).

The idea is very simple, to use tiny triangular structures embedded in the surface, and then pull the base of the triangle together, thereby pushing up the tip. My tire idea used electro-active polymers to do the pulling, and sharp carbon composites to do the grip bit, or in this antibacterial case, the sharp knife. Probably for packaging I’d use carbon nanotubes or similar as the sides with which to stab the bacteria, but engineers frequently come up with different nanostructure shapes so I’m pretty agnostic about material and shape. If it ruptures a bacterium, it will be good.

An easier to use alternative for widespread use in packaging would be to ditch the electro-active polymer and associated electronics, and instead to use a tuned acoustic wave to move the blades in and out of the surface. All that is needed to activate them is to put out that frequency of sound through a speaker system in the supermarket or factory. The sound needed would likely be ultrasonic, so it doesn’t irritate all the shoppers, and in any case, nano-structures will generally be associated with high frequencies.

So the packaging would include tiny structures that act as the dagger attached to a particular acoustic mass acting as Brutus, that would move when the appropriate resonant frequency is broadcast.

This technique doesn’t need any nasty chemicals, though it does need the nanostructures and sound and if they aren’t designed right, the nanostructures could be just as harmful. Anyway, that’s the basic idea.


Self-sterilizing surfaces & packaging