Category Archives: science

The future of beetles

Onto B then.

One of the first ‘facts’ I ever learned about nature was that there were a million species of beetle. In the Google age, we know that ‘scientists estimate there are between 4 and 8 million’. Well, still lots then.

Technology lets us control them. Beetles provide a nice platform to glue electronics onto so they tend to fall victim to cybernetics experiments. The important factor is that beetles come with a lot of built-in capability that is difficult or expensive to build using current technology. If they can be guided remotely by over-riding their own impulses or even misleading their sensors, then they can be used to take sensors into places that are otherwise hard to penetrate. This could be for finding trapped people after an earthquake, or getting a dab of nerve gas onto a president. The former certainly tends to be the favored official purpose, but on the other hand, the fashionable word in technology circles this year is ‘nefarious’. I’ve read it more in the last year than the previous 50 years, albeit I hadn’t learned to read for some of those. It’s a good word. Perhaps I just have a mad scientist brain, but almost all of the uses I can think of for remote-controlled beetles are nefarious.

The first properly publicized experiment was 2009, though I suspect there were many unofficial experiments before then:

http://www.technologyreview.com/news/411814/the-armys-remote-controlled-beetle/

There are assorted YouTube videos such as

A more recent experiment:

http://www.wired.com/2015/03/watch-flying-remote-controlled-cyborg-bug/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/11485231/Flying-beetle-remotely-controlled-by-scientists.html

Big beetles make it easier to do experiments since they can carry up to 20% of body weight as payload, and it is obviously easier to find and connect to things on a bigger insect, but obviously once the techniques are well-developed and miniaturization has integrated things down to single chip with low power consumption, we should expect great things.

For example, a cloud of redundant smart dust would make it easier to connect to various parts of a beetle just by getting it to take flight in the cloud. Bits of dust would stick to it and self-organisation principles and local positioning can then be used to arrange and identify it all nicely to enable control. This would allow large numbers of beetles to be processed and hijacked, ideal for mad scientists to be more time efficient. Some dust could be designed to burrow into the beetle to connect to inner parts, or into the brain, which obviously would please the mad scientists even more. Again, local positioning systems would be advantageous.

Then it gets more fun. A beetle has its own sensors, but signals from those could be enhanced or tweaked via cloud-based AI so that it can become a super-beetle. Beetles traditionally don’t have very large brains, so they can be added to remotely too. That doesn’t have to be using AI either. As we can also connect to other animals now, and some of those animals might have very useful instincts or skills, then why not connect a rat brain into the beetle? It would make a good team for exploring. The beetle can do the aerial maneuvers and the rat can control it once it lands, and we all know how good rats are at learning mazes. Our mad scientist friend might then swap over the management system to another creature with a more vindictive streak for the final assault and nerve gas delivery.

So, Coleoptera Nefarius then. That’s the cool new beetle on the block. And its nicer but underemployed twin Coleoptera Benignus I suppose.

 

Five new states of matter, maybe.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_states_of_matter lists the currently known states of matter. I had an idea for five new ones, well, 2 anyway with 3 variants. They might not be possible but hey, faint heart ne’er won fair maid, and this is only a blog not a paper from CERN. But coincidentally, it is CERN most likely to be able to make them.

A helium atom normally has 2 electrons, in a single shell. In a particle model, they go round and round. However… the five new states:

A: I suspect this one is may already known but isn’t possible and is therefore just another daft idea. It’s just a planar superatom. Suppose, instead of going round and round the same atom, the nuclei were arranged in groups of three in a nice triangle, and 6 electrons go round and round the triplet. They might not be terribly happy doing that unless at high pressure with some helpful EM fields adjusting the energy levels required, but with a little encouragement, who knows, it might last long enough to be classified as matter.

B: An alternative that might be more stable is a quad of nuclei in a tetrahedron, with 8 electrons. This is obviously a variant of A so probably doesn’t really qualify as a separate one. But let’s call it a 3D superatom for now, unless it already has a proper name.

C: Suppose helium nuclei are neatly arranged in a row at a precise distance apart, and two orthogonal electron beams are fired past them at a certain distance on either side, with the electrons spaced and phased very nicely, so that for a short period at least, each of the nuclei has two electrons and the beam energy and nuclei spacing ensures that they don’t remain captive on one nucleus but are handed on to the next. You can do the difficult sums. To save you a few seconds, since the beams need to be orthogonal, you’ll need multiple beams in the direction orthogonal to the row,

D: Another cheat, a variant of C, C1: or you could make a few rows for a planar version with a grid of beams. Might be tricky to make the beams stay together for any distance so you could only make a small flake of such matter, but I can’t see an obvious reason why it would be impossible. Just tricky.

E: A second variant of C really, C2, with a small 3D speck of such nuclei and a grid of beams. Again, it works in my head.

Well, 5 new states of matter for you to play with. But here’s a free bonus idea:

The states don’t have to actually exist to be useful. Even with just the descriptions above, you could do the maths for these. They might not be physically achievable but that doesn’t stop them existing in a virtual world with a hypothetical future civilization making them. And given that they have that specific mathematics, and ergo a whole range of theoretical chemistry, and therefore hyperelectronics, they could therefore be used as simulated constructs in a Turing machine or actual constructs in quantum computers to achieve particular circuitry with particular virtues. You could certainly emulate it on a Yonck processor (see my blog on that). So you get a whole field of future computing and AI thrown in.

Blogging is all the fun with none of the hard work and admin. Perfect. And just in case someone does build it all, for the record, you saw it here first.

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.

How to decide green policies

Many people in officialdom seem to love putting ticks in boxes. Apparently once all the boxes are ticked, a task can be put in the ‘mission accomplished’ cupboard and forgotten about. So watching some of the recent political debate in the run-up to our UK election, it occurred to me that there must be groups of people discussing ideas for policies and then having meetings to decide whether they tick the right boxes to be included in a manifesto. I had some amusing time thinking about how a meeting might go for the Green Party. A little preamble first.

I could write about any of the UK parties I guess. Depending on your choice of media nicknames, we have the Nasty Party, the Fruitcake Racist Party, the Pedophile Empathy Party, the Pedophile and Women Molesting Party, the National Suicide Party (though they get their acronym in the wrong order) and a few Invisible Parties. OK, I invented some of those based on recent news stories of assorted facts and allegations and make no assertion of any truth in any of them whatsoever. The Greens are trickier to nickname – ‘The Poverty and Oppression Maximization, Environmental Destruction, Economic Collapse, Anti-science, Anti-fun and General Misery Party’ is a bit of a mouthful. I like having greens around, just so long as they never win control. No matter how stupid a mistake I might ever make, I’ll always know that greens would have made a worse one.

So what would a green policy development meeting might be like? I’ll make the obvious assumption that the policies don’t all come from the Green MP. Like any party, there are local groups of people, presumably mostly green types in the wider sense of the word, who produce ideas to feed up the ladder. Many won’t even belong to any official party, but still think of themselves as green. Some will have an interest mainly in socialism, some more interested in environmentalism, most will be a blend of the two. And to be fair, most of them will be perfectly nice people who want to make the world a better place, just like the rest of us. I’ve met a lot of greens, and we do agree at least on motive even if I think they are wrong on most of their ideas of how to achieve the goals. We all want world peace and justice, a healthy environment and to solve poverty and oppression. The main difference between us is deciding how best to achieve all that.

So I’ll look at green debate generally as a source of the likely discussions, rather than any actual Green Party manifesto, even though that still looks pretty scary. To avoid litigation threats and keep my bank balance intact, I’ll state that this is only a personal imagining of what might go into such green meetings, and you can decide for yourself how much it matches up to the reality. It is possible that the actual Green Party may not actually run this way, and might not support some of the policies I discuss, which are included in this piece based on wider green debate, not the Green Party itself. Legal disclaimers in place, I’ll get on with my imagining:

Perhaps there might be some general discussion over the welcome coffee about how awful it is that some nasty capitalist types make money and there might be economic growth, how terrible it is that scientists keep discovering things and technologists keep developing them, how awful it is that people are allowed to disbelieve in a global warming catastrophe and still be allowed to roam free and how there should be a beautiful world one day where a green elite is in charge, the population has been culled down to a billion or two and everyone left has to do everything they say on pain of imprisonment or death. After coffee, the group migrates to a few nice recycled paper flip-charts to start filling them with brainstormed suggestions. Then they have to tick boxes for each suggestion to filter out the ones not dumb enough to qualify. Then make a nice summary page with the ones that get all the boxes ticked. So what boxes do they need? And I guess I ought to give a few real examples as evidence.

Environmental destruction has to be the first one. Greens must really hate the environment, since the majority of green policies damage it, but they manage to get them implemented via cunning marketing to useful idiots to persuade them that the environment will benefit. The idiots implement them thinking the environment will benefit, but it suffers.  Some quick examples:

Wind turbines are a big favorite of greens, but planted on peat bogs in Scotland, the necessary roads cause the bogs to dry out, emitting vast quantities of CO2 and destroying the peat ecosystem. Scottish wind turbines also kill eagles and other birds.

In the Far East, many bogs have been drained to grow palm oil for biofuels, another green favorite that they’ve managed to squeeze into EU law. Again, vast quantities of CO2, and again ecosystem destruction.

Forests around the world have been cut down to make room for palm oil plantations too, displacing local people, destroying an ecosystem to replace it with one to meet green fuel targets.

Still more forests have been cut down to enable new ones to be planted to cash in on  carbon offset schemes to keep corporate greens happy that they can keep flying to all those green conferences without feeling guilt. More people displaced, more destruction.

Staying with biofuels, a lot of organic waste from agriculture is converted to biofuels instead of ploughing it back into the land. Soil structure therefore deteriorates, damaging ecosystem and damaging future land quality. CO2 savings by making the bio-fuel are offset against locking the carbon up in soil organic matter so there isn’t much benefit even there, but the damage holds.

Solar farms are proliferating in the UK, often occupying prime agricultural land that really ought to be growing food for the many people in the world still suffering from malnutrition. The same solar panels could have been sent to otherwise useless desert areas in a sunny country and used to displace far more fossil fuels and save far more CO2 without reducing food production. Instead, people in many African countries have to use wood stoves favored by greens as sustainable, but which produce airborne particles that greatly reduce health. Black carbon resulting from open wood fires also contributes directly to warming.

Many of the above policy effects don’t just tick the environmental destruction box, but also the next ones poverty and oppression maximization. Increasing poverty resulted directly from increasing food prices as food was grown to be converted into bio-fuel. Bio-fuels as first implemented were a mind-numbingly stupid green policy. Very many of the world’s poorest people have been forcefully pushed out of their lands and into even deeper poverty to make space to grow bio-fuel crops. Many have starved or suffered malnutrition. Entire ecosystems have been destroyed, forests replaced, many animals pushed towards extinction by loss of habitat. More recently, even greens have realized the stupidity and these polices are slowly being fixed.

Other green policies see economic development by poor people as a bad thing because it increases their environmental footprint. The poor are therefore kept poor. Again, their poverty means they can’t use modern efficient technology to cook or keep warm, they have to chop trees to get wood to burn, removing trees damages soil integrity, helps flooding, burning them produces harmful particles and black carbon to increase warming. Furthermore, with too little money to buy proper food, some are forced to hunt or buy bushmeat, endangering animal species and helping to spread viruses between closely genetically-related animals and humans.

So a few more boxes appear. All the above polices achieved pretty much the opposite of what they presumably intended, assuming the people involved didn’t actually want to destroy the world. Maybe a counterproductive box needs to be ticked too.

Counterproductive links well to another of the green’s apparent goals, of economic collapse. They want to stop economic growth. They want to reduce obsolescence.  Obsolescence is the force that drives faster and faster progress towards devices that give us a high quality of life with a far lower environmental impact, with less resource use, lower energy use, and less pollution. If you slow obsolescence down because green dogma says it is a bad thing, all those factors worsen. The economy also suffers. The economy suffers again if energy prices are deliberately made very high by adding assorted green levies such as carbon taxes, or renewable energy subsidies.  Renewable energy subsidies encourage more oppression of people who really don’t want wind turbines nearby, causing them stress and health problems, disrupting breeding cycles of small wild animals in the areas, reducing the value of people’s homes, while making the companies that employ hem less able to compete internationally, so increasing bankruptcy, redundancy and making even more poverty. Meanwhile the rich wind farm owners are given lots of money from poor people who are forced to buy their energy and pay higher taxes for the other half of their subsidy. The poor take all the costs, the rich take all the benefits. That could be another box to tick, since it seems pretty universal in green policy So much for  policies that are meant to be socialist! Green manifesto policies would make some of these problems far worse still. Business would be strongly loaded with extra costs and admin, and the profits they can still manage to make would be confiscated to pay for the ridiculous spending plans. With a few Greens in power, damage will be limited and survivable. If they were to win control, our economy would collapse totally in a rapidly accelerating debt spiral.

Greens hate science and technology, another possible box to tick. I once chatted to one of the Green leaders (I do go to environmental events sometimes if I think I can help steer things in a more logical direction), and was told ‘the last thing we need is more science’. But it is science and technology that makes us able to live in extreme comfort today alongside a healthy environment. 100 years ago, pollution was terrible. Rivers caught fire. People died from breathing in a wide variety of pollutants. Today, we have clean water and clean air. Thanks to increasing CO2 levels – and although CO2 certainly does contribute to warming, though not as much as feared by warmist doom-mongers, it also has many positive effects – there is more global greenery today than decades ago. Plants thrive as CO2 levels increase so they are growing faster and healthier. We can grow more food and forests can recover faster from earlier green destruction.

The greens also apparently have a box that ‘prevents anyone having any fun’. Given their way, we’d be allowed no meat, our homes would all have to be dimly lit and freezing cold, we’d have to walk everywhere or wait for buses in the rain. Those buses would still burn diesel fuel, which kills thousands of people every year via inhalation of tiny particulates. When you get anywhere, you’d have to use ancient technologies that have to be fixed instead of replaced. You’d have to do stuff that doesn’t use much energy or involve eating anything nice, going anywhere nice because that would involve travel and travel is bad, except for greens, who can go to as many international conferences as they want.

So if the greens get their way, if people are dumb enough to fall for promises of infinite milk and honey for all, all paid for by taxing 3 bankers, then the world we’d live in would very quickly have a devastated environment, a devastated economy, a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to a few rich people, enormous oppression, increasing poverty, decreasing health, no fun at all. In short, with all the above boxes checked, the final summary box to get the policy into manifesto must be ‘increases general misery‘.

An interesting list of boxes to tick really. It seems that all truly green policies must:

  1. Cause environmental destruction
  2. Increase poverty and oppression
  3. Be counterproductive
  4. Push towards economic collapse
  5. Make the poor suffer all the costs while the rich (and Green elite) reap the benefits
  6. Impede further science and technology development
  7. Prevent anyone having fun
  8. Lead to general misery

This can’t be actually how they run their meetings I suppose: unless they get someone from outside with a working brain to tick the boxes, the participants would need to have some basic understanding of the actual likely consequences of their proposals and to be malign, and there is little evidence to suggest any of them do understand, and they are mostly not malign. Greens are mostly actually quite nice people, even the ones in politics, and I do really think they believe in what they are doing. Their hearts are usually in the right place, it’s just that their brains are missing or malfunctioning. All of the boxes get ticked, it’s just unintentionally.

I rest my case.

 

 

 

Stimulative technology

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

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

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

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

 

A glimmer of hope in a dark world

Looking at the news, it can be easy to see only a world full of death, destruction, poverty, environmental decay, rising terrorism and crime; a world full of greed and corruption, with fanaticism, prejudice and ignorance in place of reason and knowledge; a world with barriers replacing bridges. It is especially hard to see the leaders we so badly need to get us out of the mess. We have a collection of some of the worst western leaders of my lifetime, whose main skill seems to be marketing, avoiding answering legitimate questions put to them by their electorates, and always answering different questions that present their policies in a more favorable light. A reasonable person who just watches news and current affairs programs could get rather pessimistic about our future, heading towards hell in a cart driven by an idiot.

But a reasonable person should not just watch the news and current affairs. They should also watch and read other things. When they do so, they will see cause for hope. I study the future all day, almost every day. I am not pessimistic, nor am I an idealist. I am only interested in what will actually be, not in wearing politically tinted spectacles. I can see lots of things down the road, good and bad, but I see a future that is better than today. Not a utopia, but certainly not a dystopia, and better overall. If asked, I can spin a tale of doom as good as anyone, but only by leaving out half of the facts. I often address future problems in my blogs, but I still sleep well at night, confident that my descendants will have a happy and prosperous future.

Leaders come and go. Obama will not be recorded in history as one of America’s better presidents and he has done little for the credibility of the Nobel Peace Prize. Cameron will be remembered as one of our worst PMs, up there with Brown and (perish the thought) Miliband. Our drunkard EU president Juncker won’t shine either, more likely to increase corruption and waste than to deal with it. But we’ll get better leaders. Recessions also come and go. We may see another financial collapse any time now and maybe another after that, but the long term still looks good. Even during recession, progress continues. Better materials, better science, better medical tools and better drugs, better transport, better communications and computing, better devices, batteries and energy supplies. These all continue to improve, recession or not. So when recession finally subsides, we can buy a better lifestyle with less money. All that background development then feeds into recovered industry to accelerate it well past the point where recession arrived.

It makes sense therefore to treat recessions as temporary blockages on economic development. They are unpleasant but they don’t last. When economies become healthy again, development resumes at an accelerated rate thanks to latent development potential that has accumulated during them.

If we take 2.5% growth as fairly typical during healthy times, that adds up to prosperity very quickly. 2.5% doesn’t sound much, and you barely notice a 2.5% pay rise. But over 45 years it triples the size of an economy. Check it yourself 1.025 ^ 45 = 3.038. National debts might sound big compared to today’s economies but compared to 45 or 50 years time they are much less worrying. That assumes of course that we don’t keep electing parties that want to waste money by throwing it at national treasures rather than forcing them to become more efficient.

So there is economic hope for sure. Our kids will be far wealthier than us. In the UK, they are worried about debts they accumulate at university, but by mid-career, those will be ancient history and they’ll be far better off after that.

It isn’t all about personal wealth or even national wealth. Having more resources at your disposal makes it possible to do other things. Many countries today are worried about mass migrations. Migrations happen because of wars and because of enormous wealth differences. Most of us prefer familiarity, so would only move if we have to to get a better life for ourselves or our kids. If the global economy is three times bigger in 45 years, and 9 times bigger in 90 years, is genuine poverty really something we can’t fix? Of course it isn’t. With better science and technology, a reasonable comfortable lifestyle will be possible for everyone on the planet this century. We talk of citizen wages in developed countries. Switzerland could afford one any time now. The UK could afford a citizen wage equivalent to today’s average wage within 45 years (that means two average wages coming in for a childless couple living together and even more for families), the USA a little earlier. By 2100, everyone in the world could have a citizen wage equivalent in local spending parity terms to UK average wage today. People might still migrate, but it would be for reasons other than economic need.

If people are comfortable financially, wars will reduce too. Tribal and religious conflicts will still occur, but the fights over resources will be much reduced. Commercially motivated crime also reduces when comfort is available for free.

Extremist environmental groups see economic growth as the enemy of the environment. That is because they generally hate science and technology and don’t understand how they develop. In fact, technology generally gets cleaner and less resource hungry as it develops. A 150g (6oz) mobile not only replaces a ton of early 1990s gadgets but even adds lifestyle functionality. It uses less energy and less resource and improves life. Cars are far cleaner and far more efficient and use far less resources than their predecessors. Bridges and buildings too. Future technology will do that all over again. We will grow more and better food on less land, and free up land to return to nature. We’ll help nature recover, restore and nurture ecosystems. We’ll reduce pollution. The 2100 environment will be cleaner and healthier than today’s by far, and yet most people will lead vastly improved lives, with better food, better homes, better gadgets, better transport, better health, more social and business capability, more money to play with. There will still be some bad leaders, terrorist groups, rogue states, bad corporations, criminals, social problems.

It won’t be perfect by any means. Some people will sometimes have bad times, but on balance, it will be better. Utopia is theoretically possible, but people won’t let it happen, but it will be better for most people most of the time. We shouldn’t underestimate people’s capacity to totally screw things up, but those will be short term problems. We might even have wars, but they pass.

The world often looks like a dark place right now and lots of big problems lie ahead. But ignore the doomsayers, look beyond those, and the future actually looks pretty damned good!

 

The future of gardens

It’s been weeks since my last blog. I started a few but they need some more thought so as a catch-up, here is a nice frivolous topic, recycled from 1998.

Surely gardens are a place to get back to nature, to escape from technology? Well, when journalists ask to see really advanced technology, I take them to the garden. Humans still have a long way to go to catch up with what nature does all the time. A dragonfly catching smaller flies is just a hint of future warfare, and every flower is an exercise in high precision marketing, let alone engineering. But we will catch up, and even the stages between now and then will be fun.

Advanced garden technology today starts and ends with robotic lawn trimmers. I guess you could add the special materials used in garden tools, advanced battery tech, security monitoring, plant medications and nutrition. OK, there are already lots of advanced technologies in gardens, they just aren’t very glamorous. The fact is that our gardens already use a wide range of genetically enhanced plants and flowers, state of the art fertilizers and soil conditioners, fancy lawnmowers and automatic sprinkler systems. So what can we expect next?

Fiber optic plants already  add a touch of somewhat tacky enchantment to a garden and can be a good substitute for more conventional lighting. Home security uses video cameras and webcams and some rather fun documentaries have resulted from videoing pets and wild animals during the night. There will soon be many other appliances in the future garden, including the various armies of robots and micro-bots  doing a range of jobs from cutting the grass every time a blade gets more than 3 cm long, weeding, watering, pollination or carrying individual grains of fertilizer to the plants that need it. Others will fight with bugs or tidy up debris, or remove dying flowers to keep the garden looking pristine. They could even assist in propagation, burying seeds in just the right places and tending them while they become established. The garden pond may have robot ducks or fish just for fun.

Various sensors may be inserted into the ground around the garden, or smart dust just sprinkled randomly. These would warn when the ground is getting too dry and perhaps co-ordinate automatic sprinklers. They could also monitor the chemical composition, advising the gardener where to add which type of fertilizer or conditioner. In fact, when the price and size falls sufficiently, electronic sensors might well be mixed in with fertilizer and other garden care products.

With all this robot assistance, the human may design the garden and then just let the robots get on with the construction and maintenance. Or maybe just download a garden plan if they’re really lazy, or get the AI to download one.

Another obvious potential impact comes in the shape of genetic engineering. While designing the genome for custom plants is not quite as simple as assembling Lego blocks, we will nevertheless be able to pick and choose from a wide variety of characteristics available from anywhere in the plant and animal kingdom. We are promised blue roses that smell of designer perfumes, grass that only needs cut once a year and ground cover plants that actually grow faster than weeds. By messing about with genes we can thus change the appearance and characteristics of plants enormously, and while getting a company logo to appear on a flower petal might be beyond us, the garden could certainly look much more kaleidoscopic than today’s. We are already in the era where genetics has become a hobbyist activity, but so far the limits are pretty simple gene transfers to add fun things like fluorescence or light emission. Legislation will hopefully prevent people using such clubs to learn how to make viruses or bacteria for terrorist use.

In the long term we are not limited by the Lego bricks provided by nature. Nanotechnology will eventually allow us to produce inorganic ‘plants’ . You might buy a seed and drop it in the required place and it would grow into a predetermined structure just like an organic seed, taking the materials from the soil or air, or perhaps from some additives. However, there is almost no theoretical limit to the type of ‘plant’ that could be produced this way. Flowers with logos are possible, but so are video displays built into the flowers, so are garden gnomes that wander around or that actually fish in the pond. A wide range of static and dynamic ornamentation could add fun to every garden. Nanotechnology has so many possibilities, there are almost no ultimate limits to what can be done apart from the fundamental physics of materials. Power supplies for these devices could use solar, wind or thermal power.

On the patio, there is more scope for video displays in the paving and walls, to add color or atmosphere, and also to provide a recharging base for the robots without their own independent power supplies. Flat speakers could also be built into the walls, providing birdsong or other natural sounds that are otherwise declining in our gardens. Appropriately placed large display panels could simulate being on a beach while sunbathing in Nottingham (for non-Brits, Nottingham is a city not renowned for its sunshine, and very far from a beach).

All in all, the garden could become a place of relaxation, getting back to what we like best in nature, without all the boring bits looking after it in our few spare hours. Even before we retire, we will be able to enjoy the garden, instead of just weeding and cutting the grass.

1998 is a long time ago and I have lots of new ideas for the garden now, but time demands I leave them for a later blog.

The future of planetary exploration robots

An article in Popular Science about explorer robots:

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This is a nice idea for an explorer. I’m a bit surprised it is in Popular Science, unless it’s an old edition, since the idea first appeared ages ago, but then again, why not, it’s still a good idea. Anyway…

The most impressive idea I ever saw for an explorer robot was back in the 90s from Joe Michael of Robodyne Cybernetics, which used fractal cubes that could slide along each face, thereby rearranging into any shape. Once the big cubes were in place, smaller ones would rearrange to give fine structure. That was way before everyone and his dog new all about nanotech, his thinking was well ahead of his time. A huge array of fractal cubes could become any shape – a long snake to cross high or narrow obstacles, a thin plate to capture wind like a sail, a ball to roll around, or a dense structure to minimize volume or wind resistance.

NASA tends to opt for ridiculously expensive and complex landers with wheels and lots of gadgetry that can drive to where they want to be.

I do wonder though whether people are avoiding the simple ideas just because they’re simple. In nature, some tiny spiders get around just by spinning a length of thread and letting the wind carry them. Bubbles can float on the wind too, as can balloons. Where there’s an atmosphere, there is likely to be wind, and if simple exploration is the task, why not just let the winds carry you around? If not a thread, use a balloon that can be inflated and deflated, or a sail. Why not use a large cloud of tiny explorers using wind by diverse techniques instead of a large single robotic vehicle? Even if there is no atmosphere, surely a large cloud of tiny and diverse explorers is more capable and robust than a single one? The clue to solving the IT bits are that a physical cloud can also be an IT cloud. Why not let them use different shapes for different circumstances, so that they can float up, be blown around, and when they want to go somewhere interesting, then glide to where they want to be? Dropping from a high altitude is an easy way of gathering the kinetic energy for ground penetration too, you don’t have to carry sophisticated drills. Local atmosphere can be used as the gas source and ballast (via freezing atmospheric gases or taking some dust with you) for balloons and wind or solar can be the power supply. Obviously, people in all space agencies must have thought of these ideas themselves. I just don’t understand why they have thrown them away in favor of far more heavier and more expensive variants.

I’m not an expert on space. Maybe there are excellent reasons that each and every one of these can’t work. But I also have enough experience of engineering to know that one of the most likely reasons is that they just aren’t exciting enough and the complex, expensive, unreliable and less capable solutions simply look far more cool and trendy. Maybe it is simply that ego is more important than mission success.

The future of bacteria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ultra-simple computing: Part 2

Chip technology

My everyday PC uses an Intel Core-I7 3770 processor running at 3.4GHz. It has 4 cores running 8 threads on 1.4 billion 22nm transistors on just 160mm^2 of chip. It has an NVIDIA GeForce GTX660 graphics card, and has 16GB of main memory. It is OK most of the time, but although the processor and memory utilisation rarely gets above 30%, its response is often far from instant.

Let me compare it briefly with my (subjectively at time of ownership) best ever computer, my Macintosh 2Fx, RIP, which I got in 1991, the computer on which I first documented both the active contact lens and text messaging and on which I suppose I also started this project. The Mac 2Fx ran a 68030 processor at 40MHz, with 273,000 transistors and 4MB of RAM, and an 80MB hard drive. Every computer I’ve used since then has given me extra function at the expense of lower performance, wasted time and frustration.

Although its OS is stored on a 128GB solid state disk, my current PC takes several seconds longer to boot than my Macintosh Fx did – it went from cold to fully operational in 14 seconds – yes, I timed it. On my PC today, clicking a browser icon to first page usually takes a few seconds. Clicking on a word document back then took a couple of seconds to open. It still does now. Both computers gave real time response to typing and both featured occasional unexplained delays. I didn’t have any need for a firewall or virus checkers back then, but now I run tedious maintenance routines a few times every week. (The only virus I had before 2000 was nVir, which came on the Mac2 system disks). I still don’t get many viruses, but the significant time I spend avoiding them has to be counted too.

Going back further still, to my first ever computer in 1981, it was an Apple 2, and only had 9000 transistors running at 2.5MHz, with a piddling 32kB of memory. The OS was tiny. Nevertheless, on it I wrote my own spreadsheet, graphics programs, lens design programs, and an assortment of missile, aerodynamic and electromagnetic simulations. Using the same transistors as the I7, you could make 1000 of these in a single square millimetre!

Of course some things are better now. My PC has amazing graphics and image processing capabilities, though I rarely make full use of them. My PC allows me to browse the net (and see video ads). If I don’t mind telling Google who I am I can also watch videos on YouTube, or I could tell the BBC or some other video provider who I am and watch theirs. I could theoretically play quite sophisticated computer games, but it is my work machine, so I don’t. I do use it as a music player or to show photos. But mostly, I use it to write, just like my Apple 2 and my Mac Fx. Subjectively, it is about the same speed for those tasks. Graphics and video are the main things that differ.

I’m not suggesting going back to an Apple 2 or even an Fx. However, using I7 chip tech, a 9000 transistor processor running 1360 times faster and taking up 1/1000th of a square millimetre would still let me write documents and simulations, but would be blazingly fast compared to my old Apple 2. I could fit another 150,000 of them on the same chip space as the I7. Or I could have 5128 Mac Fxs running at 85 times normal speed. Or you could have something like a Mac FX running 85 times faster than the original for a tiny fraction of the price. There are certainly a few promising trees in the forest that nobody seems to have barked up. As an interesting aside, that 22nm tech Apple 2 chip would only be ten times bigger than a skin cell, probably less now, since my PC is already several months old

At the very least, that really begs the question what all this extra processing is needed for and why there is still ever any noticeable delay doing anything in spite of it. Each of those earlier machines was perfectly adequate for everyday tasks such as typing or spreadsheeting. All the extra speed has an impact only on some things and most is being wasted by poor code. Some of the delays we had 20 and 30 years ago still affect us just as badly today.

The main point though is that if you can make thousands of processors on a standard sized chip, you don’t have to run multitasking. Each task could have a processor all to itself.

The operating system currently runs programs to check all the processes that need attention, determine their priorities, schedule processing for them, and copy their data in and out of memory. That is not needed if each process can have its own dedicated processor and memory all the time. There are lots of ways of using basic physics to allocate processes to processors, relying on basic statistics to ensure that collisions rarely occur. No code is needed at all.

An ultra-simple computer could therefore have a large pool of powerful, free processors, each with their own memory, allocated on demand using simple physical processes. (I will describe a few options for the basic physics processes later). With no competition for memory or processing, a lot of delays would be eliminated too.