Category Archives: population

The future of mining

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

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

Robotics

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

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

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

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

NBIC

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

Deep Sea

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

Asteroid Mining

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

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

Population growth and resource need

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

Smarter Construction

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

IT efficiency v the Greens

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

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

Substitution will reduce demand for copper, neodymium, lithium

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

The Greens are the best friends of the mining industry

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

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

Carbon industry

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

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

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

Will population grow again after 2050? To 15Bn?

We’ve been told for decades now that population will level off, probably around 2050, and population after that will likely decline. The world population will peak around 2050 at about 9.5 Billion. That’s pretty much the accepted wisdom at the moment.

The reasoning is pretty straight forward and seems sound, and the evidence follows it closely. People are becoming wealthier. Wealthier people have fewer kids. If you don’t expect your kids to die from disease or starvation before they’re grown up, you don’t need to make as many.

But what if it’s based on fallacy? What if it is just plain wrong? What if the foundations of that reasoning change dramatically by 2050 and it no longer holds true? Indeed. What if?

Before I continue, let me say that my book ‘Total Sustainability’, and my various optimistic writings and blogs about population growth all agree with the view that population will level off around 2050 and then slowly decline, while food supply and resource use will improve thanks to better technologies, thereby helping us to restore the environment. If population may increase again, I and many others will have to rethink.

The reason I am concerned now is that I just made another cross-link with the trend of rising wealth, which will allow even the most basic level of welfare to be set at a high level. It is like the citizen payment that the Swiss voted on recently. I suggested it a couple of years ago myself and in my books, and am in favour of it. Everyone would receive the same monthly payment from the state whether they work or not. The taxes due would then be calculated on the total income, regardless of how you get it, and I would use a flat tax for that too. Quite simple and fair. Only wealthier people pay any tax and then according to how wealthy they are. My calculations say that by 2050, everyone in the UK could get £30,000 a year each (in today’s money) based on the typical level of growth we’ve seen in recent decades (ignoring the recession years). In some countries it would be even higher, in some less, but the cost of living is also less in many countries. In many countries welfare could be as generous as average wages are today.

So by 2050, people in many countries could have an income that allows them to survive reasonably comfortably, even without having a job. That won’t stop everyone working, but it will make it much easier for people who want to raise a family to do so without economic concerns or having to go out to work. It will become possible to live comfortably without working and raise a family.

We know that people tend to have fewer kids as they become wealthier, but there are a number of possible reasons for that. One is the better survival chances for children. That may still have an effect in the developing world, but has little effect in richer countries, so it probably won’t have any impact on future population levels in those countries. Another is the need to work to sustain the higher standard of living one has become used to, to maintain a social status and position, and the parallel reluctance to have kids that will make that more difficult. While a small number of people have kids as a means to solicit state support, but that must be tiny compared to the numbers who have fewer so that they can self sustain. Another reason is that having kids impedes personal freedom, impacts on social life and sex life and adds perhaps unwelcome responsibility. These reasons are all vulnerable to the changes caused by increasing welfare and consequential attitudes. There are probably many other reasons too. 

Working and having fewer kids allows a higher standard of living than having kids and staying at home to look after them, but most people are prepared to compromise on material quality of life to some degree to get the obvious emotional rewards of having kids. Perhaps people are having fewer kids as they get wealthier because the drop of standard of living is too high, or the risks too high. If the guaranteed basic level of survival is comfortable, there is little risk. If a lot of people choose not to work and just live on that, there will also be less social stigma in not working, and more social opportunities from having more people in the same boat. So perhaps we may reasonably deduce that making it less uncomfortable to stop work and have more kids will create a virtuous circle of more and more people having more kids.

I won’t go as far as saying that will happen, just that it might. I don’t know enough about the relative forces that make someone decide whether to have another child. It is hard to predetermine the social attitudes that will prevail in 2050 and beyond, whether people will feel encouraged or deterred from having more kids.

My key point here is that the drop in fertility we see today due to increasing wealth might only hold true up to a certain point, beyond which it reverses. It may simply be that the welfare and social floor is too low to offer a sufficient safety net for those considering having kids, so they choose not to. If the floor is raised thanks to improving prosperity, as it might well be, then population could start to rise quickly again. The assumption that population will peak at 9 or 9.5 billion and then fall might be wrong. It could rise to up to 15 billion, at which point other factors will start to reassert themselves. If our assumptions on age of death are also underestimates, it could go even higher.

And another new book: You Tomorrow, 2nd Edition

I wrote You Tomorrow two years ago. It was my first ebook, and pulled together a lot of material I’d written on the general future of life, with some gaps then filled in. I was quite happy with it as a book, but I could see I’d allowed quite a few typos to get into the final work, and a few other errors too.

However, two years is a long time, and I’ve thought about a lot of new areas in that time. So I decided a few months ago to do a second edition. I deleted a bit, rearranged it, and then added quite a lot. I also wrote the partner book, Total Sustainability. It includes a lot of my ideas on future business and capitalism, politics and society that don’t really belong in You Tomorrow.

So, now it’s out on sale on Amazon

http://www.amazon.co.uk/You-Tomorrow-humanity-belongings-surroundings/dp/1491278269/ in paper, at £9.00 and

http://www.amazon.co.uk/You-Tomorrow-Ian-Pearson-ebook/dp/B00G8DLB24 in ebook form at £3.81 (guessing the right price to get a round number after VAT is added is beyond me. Did you know that paper books don’t have VAT added but ebooks do?)

And here’s a pretty picture:

You_Tomorrow_Cover_for_Kindle

Future reproduction for same-sex couples

My writing on the future of gender and same sex reproduction now forms a section of my new book You Tomorrow, Second Edition, on the future of humanity, gender, lifestyle and our surroundings. Available from Amazon as paper and ebook.

or

http://www.amazon.co.uk/You-Tomorrow-humanity-belongings-surroundings/dp/1491278269

Future population v resources. Humans are not a plague.

This entry now forms a chapter in my book Total Sustainability, available from Amazon in paper or ebook form.

The future of time travel: cheat

Time travel comes up frequently in science fiction, and some physicists think it might be theoretically possible, to some degree, within major constraints, at vast expense, between times that are in different universes. Frankly, my physics is rusty and I don’t have any useful contribution to make on how we might do physical time travel, nor on its potential. However, intelligence available to us to figure the full physics out will accelerate dramatically thanks to the artificial intelligence positive feedback loop (smarter machines can build even smarter ones even faster)  and some time later this century we will definitely work out once and for all whether it is doable in real life and how to do it. And we’ll know why we never meet time tourists. If it can be done and done reasonable economically and safely, then it will just be a matter of time to build it after that.

Well, stuff that! Not interested in waiting! If the laws of physics make it so hard that it may never happen and certainly not till at least towards the end of this century, even if it is possible, then let’s bypass the laws of physics. Engineers do that all the time. If you are faced with an infinitely tall impenetrable barrier so you can’t go over it or through it, then check whether the barrier is also very wide, because there may well be an easy route past the barrier that doesn’t require you to go that way. I can’t walk over tall buildings, but I still haven’t found one I couldn’t walk past on the street. There is usually a way past barriers.

And with time travel, that turns out to be the case. There is an easy route past. Physics only controls the physical world. Although physics certain governs the technologies we use to create cyberspace, it doesn’t really limit what you can do in cyberspace any more than in a dream, a costume drama, or a memory.

Cyberspace takes many forms, it is’t homogeneous or even continuous. It has many dimensions. It can be quite alien. But in some areas, such as websites, archives are kept and you can look at how a site was in the past. Extend that to social networking and a problem immediately appears. How can you communicate or interact with someone if the site you are on is just an historical snapshot and isn’t live? How could you go back and actually chat to someone or play a game against them?

The solution to this problem is a tricky technological one but it is entirely  possible, and it won’t violate any physics. If you want to go back in time and interact with people as they were, then all you need is to have an archive of those people. Difficult, but possible. In cyberspace.

Around 2050, we should be starting to do direct brain links, at least in the lab and maybe a bit further. Not just connections to the optic nerve or inner ear, or chips to control wheelchairs, we already have that. And we already have basic thought recognition. By 2050 we will be starting to do full links, that allow thoughts to pass both ways between man and machine, so that the machine world is effectively an extension of your brain.

As people’s thoughts, memories and even sensations become more cyberspace based, as they will, the physical body will become less relevant. (Some of my previous blogs have considered the implication of this for immortality). Once stuff is in the IT world, it can be copied, and backed up. That gives us the potential to make recordings of people’s entire lives, and capable of effectively replicating them at will. Today we have web archives that try to do that with web sites so you can access material on older versions of them. Tomorrow we’ll also be able to include people in that. Virtually replicating the buildings and other stuff would be pretty trivial by comparison.

In that world, it will be possible for your mind, which is itself an almost entirely online entity, to interact with historic populations, essentially to time travel. Right back to the date when they were started being backed up, some time after 2050. The people they would be dealing with would be the same actual people that existed then, exactly as they were, perfect copies. They would behave and respond exactly the same. So you could use this technique to time travel back to 2050 at the very best but no earlier. And for a proper experience it would be much later, say 2100.

And then it starts to get interesting. In an electronic timeline such as that, the interactions you have with those people in the last would have two options. They could be just time tourism  or social research, or other archaeology, which has no lasting effect, and any traces of your trip would vanish when you leave. Or they could be more effectual. The interactions you have when you visit could ripple all the way back through the timeline to your ‘present?’, or future? or was it the past when you were present in the future? (it is really hard to choose the right words tenses when you write about time travel!!). The computers could make it all real, running the entire society through its course, at a greatly accelerated speed. The interactions could therefore be quite real, and all the interactions and all the minds and the rippling social effects could all be implemented. But the possibilities branch again, because although that could be true, and the future society could be genuinely changed, that could also be done by entirely replicating the cyberworld, and implementing the effects only in the parallel new cyber-universe. Doing either of these effectual options might prove very expensive, and obviously dangerous. Replicating things can be done, but you need a lot of computer power and storage to do it with everything affected, so it might be severely restricted. And policed.

But importantly, this sort of time travel could be done – you could go back in time to change the present. All the minds of all the people could be changed by someone going back in the past cyberspace records and doing something that would ripple forwards through time to change those same minds. It couldn’t be made fully clean, because some people for example might choose not to have kids in the revised edition, and although the cyberspace presence of their minds could be changed or deleted, you’d still have to dispose of their physical bodies and tidy up other physical residual effects. But not being clean is one of the things we’d expect for time travel. There would be residues, mess, paradoxes, and presumably this would all limit the things you’d be allowed to mess with. And we will need the time cops and time detectives and licenses and time cleaners and administrators and so on. But in our future cyberspace world, TIME TRAVEL WILL BE POSSIBLE. I can’t shout that loud enough. And please don’t ignore the italics, I am absolutely not suggesting it will be doable in the real world.

Fun! Trouble is, I’m going to be 90 in 2050 so I probably won’t have the energy any more.

The future of men

Environmental exposure to feminising chemicals

Many studies over the last decade (and even earlier) have shown endocrine disruptors (which mimic the behaviour of estrogens) in the environment causing feminisation  in insects, fish, amphibians, birds, reptiles and mammals. Such chemicals come from plastics, packaging, pesticides, cleaning products and even shampoo and the linings of tin cans. In extreme cases, polluted rivers have seen 100% of male fish (Roach) becoming hermaphrodite. Effects are greater in the young. Google it for examples. You’ll find lots.

Humans are animals too of course, and although we may not have enough exposure to human endocrine disruptors in our everyday environment to cause adult men to actually change into women, again there do appear to be significant effects, especially on such things as sperm counts, breast development and testicular cancer rates. Sperm counts have fallen dramatically over the last few decades.

In the womb, effects are potentially far greater. In 2007, the Arctic Measurement and Assessment Program found twice as many girls as boys being born due to levels of chemicals in the blood of pregnant women there that were high enough to cause gender change. In Japan too, fewer boys are being born.

Surprisingly perhaps, the effects on humans have not had much study, but this is perhaps because of the potential reactions of militants in the gay and transgender communities. It is a sensitive area, but we ought to be able to discuss it properly and openly. We are using more and more chemicals in our everyday lives – more hygiene and cleaning products, more processed foods, more packaging, more plastics generally. Exposure to human endocrine disruptors is already high and may become higher if we keep brushing the issues under the carpet.

What is at stake?

I have no intention in this article of getting into a men v women value debate, nor one of gay v straight. It isn’t about that at all. The issue is that if men are becoming feminised, we will gradually lose the many contributions of one end of the masculinity spectrum. Gender lines have blurred and are blurring further, and the impact  on our culture is as important as the impact on health and fertility. The problems will escalate if unborn babies and younger generations with greater vulnerability are exposed to relatively higher exposures

It does seem that men are showing their feminine sides far more than used to be the norm. Are metrosexuals in increasing abundance because of fashion and cultural exposure, or because of chemicals changing their preferences, or a combination. Why do men cry more now? Why are more men gay and bisexual than before? Why do far more teenage boys want gender changes than before? I am sure any one trend arises from a combination of factors, but I don’t think we need to know which is which before we get concerned. If the overall feminisation is due in part to chemical exposure, I think that is a problem that should be fixed. Human culture and social make-up shouldn’t be dictated by pollution. 

Why does it matter?

Without wanting to be patronising, I love women, and greatly enjoy their company. Apart from their obvious sex appeal, I greatly value their different views of life, different opinions, ways of thinking, emotional reactions. Women are fascinating and adorable and I won’t hear a word against them, straight, bi or lesbian. Transgender people, gay men and metrosexuals also make a large and diverse contribution. I don’t want to devalue any of that at all. But I also value the way other men behave and think and react and emote, or not. The feminised end of the male spectrum is growing, so they aren’t a concern here, but we should worry about losing ‘straight’, non-metrosexual masculinity. It has value too. I am not talking Rambo here, I am talking about ordinary men, ordinary masculinity. I think you understand, even if the words are hard to pin down. In the gender spectrum, one end of it is becoming fainter while the other intensifies.

I don’t want future generations to only have access to women and feminised men. I don’t think most women or feminists or gay militants want that either. Vive la difference!

So what to do?

If cultural and chemical effects on men created pressure in opposite directions, they might cancel to some degree, but they don’t. They both create feminising pressure. Men have been under strong social and media pressure to feminise for decades. It simply isn’t fashionable to be a man today. Male behaviour is ridiculed routinely throughout the media, especially in advertising, with men portrayed as cavemen and idiots in a world of highly evolved and intelligent women. Men are encouraged to explore and show their feminine sides. Even I have been told to do so a few times, and I am hardly Rambo. Our UK education system has been restructured to favour the ways girls learn. Boys are punished and put down in the playground if they dare to behave as boys. Selection of participants in reality TV shows such as ‘Big Brother’, ‘I’m a Celebrity’ and ‘Come dine with me’ greatly favours feminised men to fill the male half. TV presenting is the same. Women have significantly greater legal rights than men. In the workplace, women and gay men are heavily protected and given positive discrimination at the expense of straight men. While chemical exposure is already creating biological feminising pressure, society is kicking masculinity while it’s down.

We should obviously start to limit exposure to chemicals that cause feminisation. But society should also question its attitudes and consider the long term consequences of anti-masculinity pressure. Femininity is great, but do we really want a world with only feminised men? I really don’t think we do.

Population growth is a good thing

This entry has evolved into part of my book Total Sustainability, available from Amazon in paper or ebook form.

Zombies are coming!

Zombies are coming. They might arrive around 2075. I like Zombies, or more accurately, I like killing them. I shoot hundreds of them every week on my Xbox, in games like Half Life, Oblivion and Dead Space. There are a fair few zombie films around too, evidence that we just love being terrified by zombies. I think perhaps the big attraction is that they are extremely scary when done right, fictional, only a bit human-like, and of course dead anyway, so it doesn’t cause any guilt when you kill them again. So, I got to thinking whether they will always be fictional, or whether there is some prospect of them arriving, and if so, what can we do about it? Will it be like the computer games and movies, or different? Here goes. Bear with me, since you need to look first at the basic foundations of the technology platform on which their arrival will depend.
As I outlined already, nanotechnology is feeding in to neuroscience by enabling finer probes that can assist scientists in reverse engineering it. Biotechnology and IT are slowly converging, with insights in AI helping brain science and vice versa, but also in that we can now make rudimentary connections between IT and our nervous systems. Synthetic biology is rapidly getting to grips with basic tools and techniques used by nature, and improving on some of them, replicating others, to make entirely synthetic components of future biological systems. We are already designing bacteria to do specific protein engineering tasks, break down waste, and provide sensory capability So, lots of interesting tech is going on.
Listing a few of the important (from a Zombie perspective anyway) outcomes of such research, we can now connect IT to nerve tissue (and the connections are rapidly becoming finer thanks to nanotech). We can modify DNA and simulate and then assemble a wide range of proteins (although this is still very limited and very slow). We are starting to understand some of the basic principles of how to make smart and conscious machines and are already very good at distributed processing, self organisation, sensing and data storage and distribution. In the not too far future, we will be able to enhance human senses by linking various synthetic sensors to our brains. We will be able to link to peripheral nerves to pick up sensations and relay them across networks, stimulating equivalent nerves in other people to create the same or at least similar sensations in them. In IT, we have already progressed some way along the multi-core and distributed processing time-lines, and it is foreseeable that in the far future, computing my well be done by billions of tiny processors suspended in a gel, using optical interconnects. In fact, using progress in biotech and synthetic biology, it is equally foreseeable that this will be done by using bacteria to assemble the IT in their own cells, and using their own energy to power the circuits.
So, round about the time we figure out how the brain works well enough to connect properly to it, we will also be designing conscious machines and very probably using smart bacteria as the platform for them, creating and powering the electronic components in what is best described as smart yogurt. Looking at the basic physics and maths, it is clear that a smart yogurt could have as much raw processing power as all the human brains in Europe! Already scary, but let’s not go all Terminatory just yet, Zombies are much more fun.
Smart yogurt is actually really scary stuff. It would look (and maybe even taste) just like today’s. But each cell would contain electronic circuits, that can be connected to the circuits in other bacteria using optical signals (bioluminescence for example) to make very sophisticated circuits for all kinds of sensing, storage, comms and processing. And because they are still viable bacteria, they will be able to survive and flourish anywhere there is a decent food supply. Being very smart collectively (each yogurt could have an IQ equivalent to the whole of the EU), they will be able to genetically redesign their own offspring to capture and colonise other biological niches. They will be able to design offspring so that they can penetrate the human body and bypass the immune system, or to enter and remain in the brain (let’s not even call these bacteria, since they are more likely to be nothing like natural bacteria when they’ve finished, they may well be as small as viruses but with much more sophisticated capability). Inside the brain, they might connect to individual synapses and monitor and signal the electrical activity to their external allies. These allies might then create an electronic replica of that person’s brain, thereby replicating their mind. They might map out the connections to work out the signals the person uses to move their limbs, to speak or do anything else.
This obviously provides the means to remote control the person’s body, and to intercept or over-ride any thoughts they might have. Smart yogurt could take over your mind, over-ride your brain at will, and to control your body as easily as you can. Keeping a person’s body alive is optional, but obviously comes with advantages of maintaining its capability. Keeping the brain alive is less advantageous, as the yogurt can take over and replace any and all of its functions. So we are likely to have a few varieties of zombies. Some will be brain-dead, but otherwise perfectly healthy. Others will be fully alive but with their minds under supervision and subject to over-ride. They might know what is happening to them but be powerless to resist. Others will have no awareness of their predicament and think they are fine even though they have been enslaved. And finally, we may have some that are fully and properly dead, brought back to an animated state by the yogurt taking over all the main electrical functions while the brain itself is potentially even missing. We could even have headless zombies!
Killing these zombies would probably work much like it does in the games and movies. They all need a body to be in at least partial working order, and if they are going to get around, that means they need a circulatory and respiratory system, and legs (or a mobility scooter at least). So you could kill them by fire, chopping them up, or shooting them in the heart, or various other ways.
The headless and dead zombies sound quite disturbing, but they would be in small minority. The great majority of zombies would look much like normal people. This is more like ‘The Body Snatchers’ than ‘Dead-Space’. How much they will worry us depends mainly on whether they are aggressive. Terry Pratchett wrote amusingly about a zombie being gainfully employed as a solicitor. If they use the technology suggested here, many zombies could be fully functioning, valuable members of the community, even leaders and captains of industry. For a while anyway. But some might be violent. We might try to use zombies extensively in the army or police, for obvious reasons. But if they are as smart as or smarter than people, they will soon have their own culture and inevitably come into conflict with regular people. They might rise against us in a war against humans. Trouble is, if they have superior senses and faster brains and more intelligence and can communicate directly across the net, they will be pretty good competition. We will probably lose.
So, zombies are possible, plausible, even likely, given what we already can deduce about the future of technology. And the time-frame for this possibility is sooner than you would hope. Depending on our reactions and adaptations, they could become a threat to human existence. I’m going back on Dead Space to improve my aim.
The one possibly good thing is that as a way of wiping out life on earth, zombies are only one of 150 alternatives that are feasible this century. We might not last long enough to be killed by zombies. I am not sure if that is good or bad.

Increasing longevity and electronic immortality. 3Bn people to live forever.

I have written and lectured many times on this topic, but it’s always worth doing an occasional update.  Anyone under 35 today will likely have access to electronic immortality and live forever.Well, not forever, but until the machines running their minds fail. How? Read on.

Scientists can already replicate the functions of small parts of the brain, and can essentially replace them in lab animals. Every year, this moves on a little, for all the best reasons. They aren’t mad scientists, they are trying to find solutions to enormous human problems such as  senility, strokes and general loss of brain function due to normal ageing. These destroy parts of the brain function, so if we can work out how to augment the remaining brain to replace lost function, then that should be a good thing. But although these things start in medical treatment, the military also has an interest in making super-soldiers, with faster reactions, better senses, superior intelligence and so on. And the rest of us present a large and attractive market for cosmetic use of brain augmentation.

Most of us would happily pay out for the cosmetic version of all of these things once they become available and safe. I want a higher IQ, perfect memory, better creativity, modifiable personality, enhanced senses and so on. You probably do too., though your list may not be exactly the same as mine. The wish list is long and many of the items on it will become available this century.

The timeline goes from today’s simple implants and sensory links all the way to a full direct link to most parts of the brain by 2045-2050. This will allow 2-way communication between your organic brain and electronic enhancement, which could physically be almost anywhere, though transmission time limits how far away some functions can be. What starts as a cosmetic enhancement to senses or memory will gradually be enhanced to add IQ, telepathic communication, shared minds and many other areas. Over time, more and more of your mind will actually be housed in the machine world. Some of it will still run in your organic brain, but a reducing proportion, so your brain will become less and less important to your mind’s ongoing existence . At some point your organic body will die, and you’ll lose that bit, but hey, it’s no big deal, most of the bits you actually use are elsewhere. But medical advances are fixing many of the things that might otherwise kill you, and pushing your date of death further into the future. That buys you more time to make the migration. How much time?

For young people, the rate of medical advancement expected over the next few decades is such that their expected death date is actually moving further away.

Let’s clarify that: for anyone under 35, each year, for quite a long period starting soonish, more than a year will be added to their expected lifespan, so they won’t be getting closer to dying, they will be getting further away. But only for a time. That rate of development can’t continue forever. It will eventually slow down. But realistically, for the developed world and for many in the developing world too, under 35s will live into their late 90s or 100s. If you’re 35 today, that means you  probably aren’t going to die until after 2075, and that is well after the electronic immortality option kicks in. If it appears on the market in the 2050s, as I believe it will for rich or important people, by 2080, it will be cheap and routine and pretty much anyone will have it as an option.

So, anyone under 35 has a very good chance of being able to carry on electronically after their body dies. They will buy some sort of android body, or maybe just rent one when they want to do something in the physical world and otherwise stay in the cloud. Space and resource limitations may dictate how much real world presence you are permitted.

How many people does this apply to. Median age in the world at the moment in almost exactly 30. 3.5Bn pople are under 30, but some will die too early to benefit. Another 500M in the 30-35 range will make up for the younger ones that die from accidents, wars, disease, or disasters. Then we need to discount for those that won’t be able to afford it. After much hand waving and guesstimating, a reasonable estimate of 3Bn results for those that will have reasonable access to electronic immortality, and will probably live to around 100 before that. Wow! We don’t just have the first person alive who will live electronically for hundreds of years after their body dies. We have the first 3Bn.

They won’t live forever. The Earth won’t last forever, nor will the rest of the universe. But they will be able to live until someone destroys the equipment or switches them off. Wars or terrorism could do that, or even a future society that turns against the idea. It is far from risk free. But, with a bit of luck maybe they could expect to live for a few hundred years after they ‘die’.

I know I’ve made the joke many times, but it’s still worth repeating. Soon, death will no longer be a career problem.