This is a presentation I made for the Eindhoven Design Academy. It is mostly self-explanatory
Having just blogged about some of the bad scenarios for next year (scenarios are just explorations of things that might or could happen, not things that actually will, those are called predictions), Len Rosen’s comment stimulated me to balance it with a nicer look at next year. Some great things will happen, even ignoring the various product release announcements for new gadgets. Happiness lies deeper than the display size on a tablet. Here are some positive scenarios. They might not happen, but they might.
1 Middle East sorts itself out.
The new alliance formed by Saudi Arabia turns out to be a turning point. Rising Islamophobia caused by Islamist around the world has sharpened the view of ISIS and the trouble in Syria with its global consequences for Islam and even potentially for world peace. The understanding that it could get even worse, but that Western powers can’t fix trouble in Muslim lands due to fears of backlash, the whole of the Middle East starts to understand that they need to sort out their tribal and religious differences to achieve regional peace and for the benefit of Muslims everywhere. Proper discussions are arranged, and with the knowledge that a positive outcome must be achieved, success means a strong alliance of almost all regional powers, with ISIS and other extremist groups ostracized, then a common army organised to tackle and defeat them.
2 Quantum computation and AI starts to prove useful in new drug design
Google’s wealth and effort with its quantum computers and AI, coupled to IBM’s Watson, Facebook, Apple and Samsung’s AI efforts, and Elon Musk’s new investment in open-AI drive a positive feedback loop in computing. With massive returns on the horizon by making people’s lives easier, and with ever-present fears of Terminator in the background, the primary focus is to demonstrate what it could mean for mankind. Consequently, huge effort and investment is focused on creating new drugs to cure cancer, aids and find generic replacements for antibiotics. Any one of these would be a major success for humanity.
3 Major breakthrough in graphene production
Graphene is still the new wonder-material. We can’t make it in large quantities cheaply yet, but already the range of potential uses already proven for it is vast. If a breakthrough brings production cost down by an order of magnitude or two then many of those uses will be achievable. We will be able to deliver clean and safe water to everyone, we’ll have super-strong materials, ultra-fast electronics, active skin, better drug delivery systems, floating pods, super-capacitors that charge instantly as electric cars drive over a charging unit on the road surface, making batteries unnecessary. Even linear induction motor mats to replace self-driving cars with ultra-cheap driver-less pods. If the breakthrough is big enough, it could even start efforts towards a space elevator.
Tiny and cheap drones could help security forces to reduce crime dramatically. Ignoring for now possible abuse of surveillance, being able to track terrorists and criminals in 3D far better than today will make the risk of being caught far greater. Tiny pico-drones dropped over Syria and Iraq could pinpoint locations of fighters so that they can be targeted while protecting innocents. Environmental monitoring would also benefit if billions of drones can monitor ecosystems in great detail everywhere at the same time.
5 Active contact lens
Google has already prototyped a very primitive version of the active contact lens, but they have been barking up the wrong tree. If they dump the 1-LED-per-Pixel approach, which isn’t scalable, and opt for the far better approach of using three lasers and a micro-mirror, then they could build a working active contact lens with unlimited resolution. One in each eye, with an LCD layer overlaid, and you have a full 3D variably-transparent interface for augmented reality or virtual reality. Other displays such as smart watches become unnecessary since of course they can all be achieved virtually in an ultra-high res image. All the expense and environmental impact of other displays suddenly is replaced by a cheap high res display that has an environmental footprint approaching zero. Augmented reality takes off and the economy springs back to life.
6 Star Wars stimulates renewed innovation
Engineers can’t watch a film without making at least 3 new inventions. A lot of things on Star Wars are entirely feasible – I have invented and documented mechanisms to make both a light saber and the land speeder. Millions of engineers have invented some way of doing holographic characters. In a world that seems full of trouble, we are fortunate that some of the super-rich that we criticise for not paying as much taxes as we’d like are also extremely good engineers and have the cash to back up their visions with real progress. Natural competitiveness to make the biggest contribution to humanity will do the rest.
7 Europe fixes itself
The UK is picking the lock on the exit door, others are queuing behind. The ruling bureaucrats finally start to realize that they won’t get their dream of a United States of Europe in quite the way they hoped, that their existing dream is in danger of collapse due to a mismanaged migrant crisis, and consequently the UK renegotiation stimulates a major new treaty discussion, where all the countries agree what their people really want out of the European project, rather than just a select few. The result is a reset. A new more democratic European dream emerges that the vest majority of people actually wants. Agreement on progress to sort out the migrant crisis is a good test and after that, a stronger, better, more vibrant Europe starts to emerge from the ashes with a renewed vigor and rapidly recovering economy.
8 Africa rearranges boundaries to get tribal peace
Breakthrough in the Middle East ripples through North Africa resulting in the beginnings of stability in some countries. Realization that tribal conflicts won’t easily go away, and that peace brings prosperity, boundaries are renegotiated so that different people can live in and govern their own territories. Treaties agree fair access to resources independent of location.
9 The Sahara become Europe’s energy supply
With stable politics finally on the horizon, energy companies re-address the idea of using the Sahara as a solar farm. Local people earn money by looking after panels, keeping them clean and in working order, and receive welcome remuneration, bringing prosperity that was previously beyond them. Much of this money in turn is used to purify water, irrigating deserts and greening them, making a better food supply while improving the regional climate and fixing large quantities of CO2. Poverty starts to reduce as the environment improves. Much of this is replicated in Central and South America.
10 World Peace emerges
By fighting alongside in the Middle East and managing to avoid World War 3, a very positive relationship between Russia and the West emerges. China meanwhile, makes some of the energy breakthroughs needed to get solar efficiency and cost down below oil cost. This forces the Middle East to also look Westward for new markets and to add greater drive to their regional peace efforts to avoid otherwise inevitable collapse. Suddenly a world that was full of wars becomes one where all countries seem to be getting along just fine, all realizing that we only have this one world and one life and we’d better not ruin it.
Bloomberg reports the ‘Pessimists guide to the world in 2016’, by By Flavia Krause-Jackson, Mira Rojanasakul, and John Fraher.
Excellent stuff. A healthy dose of realism to counter the spin and gloss and outright refusals to notice things that don’t fit the agenda that we so often expect from today’s media. Their entries deserve some comment, and I’ll add a few more. I’m good at pessimism.
Their first entry is oil reaching $100 a barrel as ISIS blows up oil fields. Certainly possible, though they also report the existing oil glut: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-12-17/shale-drillers-are-now-free-to-export-u-s-oil-into-global-glut
Just because the second option is the more likely does not invalidate the first as a possible scenario, so that entry is fine.
An EU referendum in June is their 2nd entry. Well, that will only happen if Cameron gets his way and the EU agrees sufficient change to make the referendum result more likely to end in a Yes. If there is any hint of a No, it will be postponed as far as possible to give politics time to turn the right way. Let’s face facts. When the Ukraine had their referendum, they completed the entire process within two weeks. If the Conservatives genuinely wanted a referendum on Europe, it would have happened years ago. The Conservatives make frequent promises to do the Conservative thing very loudly, and then quietly do the Labour thing and hope nobody notices. Osborne promised to cut the deficit but faced with the slightest objections from the media performed a text-book U-turn. That follow numerous U-turns on bin collections, speed cameras, wheel clamping, environment, surveillance, immigration, pensions, fixing the NHS…. I therefore think he will spin the EU talks as far as possible to pretend that tiny promises to think about the possibility of reviewing policies are the same as winning guarantees of major changes. Nevertheless, an ongoing immigration flood and assorted Islamist problems are increasing the No vote rapidly, so I think it far more likely that the referendum will be postponed.
The 3rd is banks being hit by a massive cyber attack. Very possible, even quite likely.
4th, EU crumbles under immigration fears. Very likely indeed. Schengen will be suspended soon and increasing Islamist violence will create increasing hostility to the migrant flow. Forcing countries to accept a proportion of the pain caused by Merkel’s naivety will increase strains between countries to breaking point. The British referendum on staying or leaving adds an escape route that will be very tempting for politicians who want to stay in power.
Their 5th is China’s economy failing and military rising. Again, quite feasible. Their economy has suffered a slowdown, and their military looks enthusiastically at Western decline under left-wing US and Europe leadership, strained by Middle Eastern and Russian tensions. There has never been a better time for their military to exploit weaknesses.
6 is Israel attacking Iranian nuclear facilities. Well, with the US and Europe rapidly turning antisemitic and already very anti-Israel, they have pretty much been left on their own, surrounded by countries that want them eliminated. If anything, I’m surprised they have been so patient.
7 Putin sidelines America. Is that not history?
8 Climate change heats up. My first significant disagreement. With El-Nino, it will be a warm year, but evidence is increasing that the overall trend for the next few decades will be cooling, due to various natural cycles. Man made warming has been greatly exaggerated and people are losing interest in predictions of catastrophe when they can see plainly that most of the alleged change is just alterations to data. Yes, next year will be warm, but thanks to far too many cries of wolf, apart from meta-religious warmists, few people still believe things will get anywhere near as bad as doom-mongers suggest. They will notice that the Paris agreement, if followed, would trash western economies and greatly increase their bills, even though it can’t make any significant change on global CO2 emissions. So, although there will be catastrophe prediction headlines next year making much of higher temperatures due to El Nino, the overall trend will be that people won’t be very interested any more.
9 Latin America’s lost decade. I have to confess I did expect great things from South America, and they haven’t materialized. It is clear evidence that a young vibrant population does not necessarily mean one full of ideas, enthusiasm and entrepreneurial endeavor. Time will tell, but I think they are right on this one.
Their 10th scenario is Trump winning the US presidency. I can’t put odds on it, but it certainly is possible, especially with Islamist violence increasing. He offers the simple choice of political correctness v security, and framed that way, he is certainly not guaranteed to win but he is in with a decent chance. A perfectly valid scenario.
Overall, I’m pretty impressed with this list. As good as any I could have made. But I ought to add a couple.
My first and most likely offering is that a swarm of drones is used in a terrorist attack on a stadium or even a city center. Drones are a terrorist’s dream, and the lack of licensing has meant that people can acquire lots of them and they could be used simultaneously, launched from many locations and gathering together in the same place to launch the attack. The attack could be chemical, biological, explosive or even blinding lasers, but actually, the main weapon would be the panic that would result if even one or two of them do anything. Many could be hurt in the rush to escape.
My second is a successful massive cyber-attack on ordinary people and businesses. There are several forms of attack that could work and cause enormous problems. Encryption based attacks such as ransomware are already here, but if this is developed by the IT experts in ISIS and rogue regimes, the ransom might not be the goal. Simply destroying data or locking it up is quite enough to be a major terrorist goal. It could cause widespread economic harm if enough machines are infected before defenses catch up, and AI-based adaptation might make that take quite a while. The fact is that so far we have been very lucky.
The third is a major solar storm, which could knock out IT infrastructure, again with enormous economic damage. The Sun is entering a period of sunspot drought quite unprecedented since we started using IT. We don’t really know what will happen.
My fourth is a major virus causing millions of deaths. Megacities are such a problem waiting to happen. The virus could evolve naturally, or it could be engineered. It could spread far and wide before quarantines come into effect. This could happen any time, so next year is a valid possibility.
My fifth and final scenario is unlikely but possible, and that is the start of a Western civil war. I have blogged about it in https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/machiavelli-and-the-coming-great-western-war/ and suggested it is likely in the middle or second half of the century, but it could possibly start next year given the various stimulants we see rising today. It would affect Europe first and could spread to the USA.
A very short one since I am still recovering from a painful trapped nerve that has prevented me writing. Anyway, the best ideas are often the simplest. I re-discovered this one in a 2008 article I wrote but I don’t think it has been done yet and it easily could.
So you buy a telescope for use at home. You point it up at a planet or a star. It probably does a magnification of a few hundred. Why not add a digital zoom that is linked to networked images from large telescope such as Hubble? When you reach the limits of your cheaper version, you see images from more expensive better ones. You also could swap to radio or IR or xray images just as easily. Adding that networked function would be fairly simple and cheap, maybe adding a few tens of dollars even to do it well.
Naturally, you could add networked zoom to cameras too, for landscapes and beauty spots anyway.
You could just make a fully digital telescope of course that has no real telescope function at all, just seeming to be one, and working the same way except that ll the images it provides are digital, using direction tracking to pull up the right one.
Ok, my arm hurts again.
Imagine you are sitting peacefully at home watching a movie with your family. A few terrorists with guns burst in. They start shooting. What is your reaction?
Option A) you tell your family not to do anything but to continue watching TV, because reacting would be giving in to the terrorists – they want you to be angry and try to attack them, but you are the better person, you have the moral superiority and won’t stoop to their level. Anyway, attacking them might anger them more and they might be even more violent. You tell your family they should all stick together and show the terrorists they can’t win and can’t change your way of life by just carrying on as before. You watch as one by one, each of your kids is murdered, determined to occupy the moral high ground until they shoot you too.
Option B) you understand that what the terrorists want is for you and your family to be dead. So you grab whatever you can that might act as some sort of weapon and rush at the terrorists, trying to the end to disarm them and protect your family. If you survive, you then do all you can to prevent other terrorists from coming into your home. Then you do all you can to identify where they are coming from and root them out.
The above choice is a little simplistic but it highlights the key points of the two streams of current opinion on the ‘right’ response.
Option B recognizes that you have to remain alive to defend your principles. Once you’ve dealt with the threat, then you are free to build as many ivory towers and moral pedestals as you want. Option A simply lets the terrorists win.
There is no third option for discussing it peacefully over a nice cup of tea, no option for peace and love and mutual respect for all. ISIS are not interested in peace and love. They are barbarians with the utmost contempt for civilization who want to destroy everything that doesn’t fit into their perverted interpretation of an Islamic world. However, ISIS is just one Islamist terror group of course and if we are successful in conquering them, and then Al Qaeda and Boko Haram, and so on, other Islamist groups will emerge. Islamism is the problem, ISIS is just the worst current group. We need to deal with it.
I’ll draw out some key points from my previous blogs. If you want more detail on the future of ISIS look at https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/07/13/the-future-of-isis/
The situation in Europe shows a few similarities with the IRA conflict, with the advantage today that we are still in the early stages of Islamist violence. In both cases, the terrorists themselves are mostly no-hoper young men with egos out of alignment with their personal reality. Yes there are a few women too. They desperately want to be respected, but with no education and no skills, a huge chip on their shoulder and a bad attitude, ordinary life offers them few opportunities. With both ISIS and the IRA, the terrorists are drawn from a community that considers itself disadvantaged. Add a hefty amount of indoctrination about how terribly unfair the world is, the promise of being a hero, going down in history as a martyr and the promise of 72 virgins to play with in the afterlife, and the offer to pick up a gun or a knife apparently seems attractive to some. The IRA recruited enough fighters even without the promise of the virgins.
The IRA had only about 300 front-line terrorists at any time, but they came from the nationalist community of which an estimated 30% of people declared some sympathy for them. Compare that with a BBC survey earlier this year that found that in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, only 68% of Muslims agreed with the statement “Acts of violence against those who publish images of the Prophet Mohammed can never be justified”. 68% and 70% are pretty close, so I’ll charitably accept that the 68% were being honest and not simply trying to disassociate themselves from the Paris massacre. The overwhelming majority of British Muslims rejecting violence – two thirds in the BBC survey, is entirely consistent with other surveys on Muslim attitudes around the world, and probably a reasonable figure for Muslims across Europe. Is the glass half full or half empty? Your call.
The good news is the low numbers that become actual front-line terrorists. Only 0.122% of the nationalist community in Northern Ireland at any particular time were front-line IRA terrorists. Now that ISIS are asking potential recruits not to go to Syria but to stay where they are and do their thing there, we should consider how many there might be. If we are lucky and the same 0.122% applies to our three million UK Muslims, then about 3600 are potential Islamist terrorists. That’s about 12 times bigger than the IRA problem if ISIS or other Islamist groups get their acts together. With 20 million Muslims in Europe, that would make for potentially 24,000 Islamist terrorists, or 81 IRAs to put it another way. Most can travel freely between countries.
What of immigration then? People genuinely fleeing violence presumably have lower support for it, but they are only a part of the current influx. Many are economic migrants and they probably conform more closely to the norm. We also know that some terrorists are hiding among other migrants, and indeed at least two of those were involved in the latest Paris massacre. Most of the migrants are young men, so that would tend to skew the problem upwards too. With forces acting in both directions, it’s probably not unreasonable as a first guess to assume the same overall support levels. According to the BBC, 750,000 have entered Europe this year, so that means another 900 potential terrorists were likely in their midst. Europe is currently importing 3 IRAs every year.
Meanwhile, it is rather ironic that many of the current migrants are coming because Angela Merkel felt guilty about the Holocaust. Many Jews are now leaving Europe because they no longer feel safe because of the rapidly rising numbers of attacks by the Islamists she has encouraged to come.
So, the first Paris issue is Islamism, already at 81 potential IRAs and growing at 3 IRAs per year, plus a renewed exodus of Jews due to widespread increasing antisemitism.
So, to the other Paris issue, climate change. I am not the only one annoyed by the hijacking of the environment by leftist pressure groups, because the poor quality of analysis and policies resulting from that pressure ultimately harms both the environment and the poor.
The world has warmed since the last ice age. Life has adjusted throughout to that continuing climate change. Over the last century, sea level has steadily increased, and is still increasing at the same rate now. The North Pole ice has shrunk, to 8.5% to 11% below normal at the moment depending whose figures you look at, but it certainly isn’t disappearing any time soon. However, Antarctic sea ice has grown to 17% to 25% above normal again depending whose figures you look at, so there is more ice than normal overall. Temperature has also increased over the last century, with a few spurts and a few slowdowns. The last spurt was late 70s to late 90s, with a slowdown since. CO2 levels have rocketed up relentlessly, but satellite-measured temperature hasn’t moved at all since 1998. Only when figures are tampered with is any statistically significant rise visible.
Predictions by climate models have almost all been far higher than the empirical data. In any other branch of science, that would mean throwing theories away and formulating better ones. In climate science, numerous adjustments by alleged ‘climate scientists’ show terrible changes ahead; past figures have invariably been adjusted downwards and recent ones upwards to make the rises seem larger. Climate scientists have severely damaged the reputation of science in every field. The public now distrusts all scientists less and disregard for scientific advice in lifestyle, nutrition, exercise and medication will inevitably lead to an increase in deaths.
Everyone agrees that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and increases will have a forcing effect on temperature, but there is strong disagreement about the magnitude of that effect, the mechanisms and magnitudes of the feedback processes throughout the environmental system, and both the mechanisms and magnitudes of a wide range of natural effects. It is increasingly obvious that climate scientists only cover a subset of the processes affecting climate, but they seem contemptuous of science in other disciplines such as astrophysics that cover important factors such as solar cycles. There is a strong correlation between climate and solar cycles historically but the mechanisms are complex and not yet fully understood. It is also increasingly obvious that many climate scientists are less concerned about the scientific integrity of their ‘research’ than maintaining a closed shop, excluding those who disagree with them, getting the next grant or pushing a political agenda.
Empirical data suggests that the forcing factor of CO2 itself is not as high as assumed in most models, and the very many feedbacks are far more complex than assumed in most models.
CO2 is removed from the environment by natural processes of adaptation faster than modeled – e.g. plants and algae grow faster, and other natural processes such as solar or ocean cycles have far greater effects than assumed in the models. Recent research suggests that it has a ‘half-life’ in the atmosphere only of around 40 years, not the 1000 years claimed by ‘climate scientists’. That means that the problem will go away far faster when we fix it than has been stated.
CO2 is certainly a greenhouse gas, and we should not be complacent about generating it, but on current science (before tampering) it seems there is absolutely no cause for urgent action. It is right to look to future energy sources and move away from fossil fuels, which also cause other large environmental problems, not least of which the particulates that kill millions of people every year. Meanwhile, we should expedite movement from coal and oil to low carbon fossil fuels such as shale gas.
As is often observed, sunny regions such as the Sahara could easily produce enough solar energy for all of Europe, but there is no great hurry so we can wait for the technology to become sufficiently cheap and for the political stability in appropriate areas to be addressed so that large solar farms can be safely developed and supply maintained. Meanwhile, southern Europe is reasonably sunny, politically stable and needs cash. Other regions also have sunny deserts to support them. We will also have abundant fusion energy in the 2nd half of the century. So we have no long term energy problem. Solar/fusion energy will eventually be cheap and abundant, and at an equivalent of less than $30 per barrel of oil, we won’t bother using fossil fuels because they will be too expensive compared to alternatives. The problems we do have in energy supply are short term and mostly caused by idiotic green policies that worsen supply, costs and environmental impact. It is hard to think of a ‘green’ policy that actually works.
The CO2 problem will go away in the long term due to nothing but simple economics and market effects. In the short term, we don’t see a measurable problem due to a happy coincidence of solar cycles and ocean cycles counteracting the presumed warming forcing of the CO2. There is absolutely no need to rush into massively problematic taxes and subsidies for immature technology. The social problems caused by short term panic are far worse than the problem they are meant to fix. Increased food prices have been caused by regulation to enforce use of biofuels. Ludicrously stupid carbon offset programs have led to chopping down of rain forests, draining of peat bogs and forced relocation of local peoples, and after all tat have actually increased CO2 emissions. Lately, carbon taxes in the UK, far higher than elsewhere, have led to collapse of the aluminium and steel industries, while the products have still been produced elsewhere at higher CO2 cost. Those made redundant are made even poorer because they have to pay higher prices for energy thanks to enormous subsidies to rich people who own wind or solar farms. Finally, closing down fossil fuel plants before we have proper substitutes in place and then asking wind farm owners to accept even bigger subsidies to put in diesel generators for use on calm and dull days is the politics of the asylum. Green policies perform best at transferring money from poor to rich, with environmental damage seemingly a small price to pay for a feel-good factor..
Call me a skeptic or a denier or whatever you want if you like. I am technically ‘luke warm’. There is a problem with CO2, but not a big one, and it will go away all by itself. There is no need for political interference and that which we have seen so far has made far worse problems for both people and the environment than climate change would ever have done. Our politicians would do a far better job if they did nothing at all.
So, Paris then. On one hand we have a minor problem from CO2 emissions that will go away fastest with the fewest problems if our politicians do nothing at all. On the other hand, their previous mistakes have already allowed the Islamist terrorist equivalent of 81 IRAs to enter Europe and the current migrant flux is increasing that by 3 IRAs per year. That does need to be addressed, quickly and effectively.
Perhaps they should all stay in Paris but change the subject.
A couple of years ago I explained how to make a free-floating combat drone: http://carbonweapons.com/2013/06/27/free-floating-combat-drones/ , like the ones in Halo or Mass Effect. They could realistically be made in the next couple of decades and are very likely to feature heavily in far future warfare, or indeed terrorism. I was chatting to a journalist this morning about light sabers, another sci-fi classic. They could also be made in the next few decades, using derivatives of the same principles. A prototype is feasible this side of 2050.
I’ll ignore the sci-fi wikis that explain how they are meant to work, which mostly approximate to fancy words for using magic or The Force and various fictional crystals. On the other hand, we still want something that will look and sound and behave like the light saber.
The handle bit is pretty obvious. It has to look good and contain a power source and either a powerful laser or plasma generator. The traditional problem with using a laser-based saber is that the saber is only meant to be a metre long but laser beams don’t generally stop until they hit something. Plasma on the other hand is difficult to contain and needs a lot of energy even when it isn’t being used to strike your opponent. A laser can be switched on and off and is therefore better. But we can have some nice glowy plasma too, just for fun.
The idea is pretty simple then. The blade would be made of graphene flakes coated with carbon nanotube electron pipes, suspended using the same technique I outlined in the blog above. These could easily be made to form a long cylinder and when you want the traditional Star Wars look, they would move about a bit, giving the nice shimmery blurry edge we all like so that the tube looks just right with blurry glowy edges. Anyway, with the electron pipe surface facing inwards, these flakes would generate the internal plasma and its nice glow. They would self-organize their cylinder continuously to follow the path of the saber. Easy-peasy. If they strike something, they would just re-organize themselves into the cylinder again once they are free.
For later models, a Katana shaped blade will obviously be preferred. As we know, all ultimate weapons end up looking like a Katana, so we might as well go straight to it, and have the traditional cylindrical light saber blade as an optional cosmetic envelope for show fights. The Katana is a universal physics result in all possible universes.
The hum could be generated by a speaker in the handle if you have absolutely no sense of style, but for everyone else, you could simply activate pulsed magnetic fields between the flakes so that they resonate at the required band to give your particular tone. Graphene flakes can be magnetized so again this is perfectly consistent with physics. You could download and customize hums from the cloud.
Now the fun bit. When the blade gets close to an object, such as your opponent’s arm, or your loaf of bread in need of being sliced, the capacitance of the outer flakes would change, and anyway, they could easily transmit infrared light in every direction and pick up reflections. It doesn’t really matter which method you pick to detect the right moment to activate the laser, the point is that this bit would be easy engineering and with lots of techniques to pick from, there could be a range of light sabers on offer. Importantly, at least a few techniques could work that don’t violate any physics. Next, some of those self-organizing graphene flakes would have reflective surface backings (metals bond well with graphene so this is also a doddle allowed by physics), and would therefore form a nice reflecting surface to deflect the laser beam at the object about to be struck. If a few flakes are vaporized, others would be right behind them to reflect the beam.
So just as the blade strikes the surface of the target, the powerful laser switches on and the beam is bounced off the reflecting flakes onto the target, vaporizing it and cauterizing the ends of the severed blood vessels to avoid unnecessary mess that might cause a risk of slipping. The shape of the beam depends on the locations and angles of the reflecting surface flakes, and they could be in pretty much any shape to create any shape of beam needed, which could be anything from a sharp knife to a single point, severing an arm or drilling a nice neat hole through the heart. Obviously, style dictates that the point of the saber is used for a narrow beam and the edge is used as a knife, also useful for cutting bread or making toast (the latter uses transverse laser deflection at lower aggregate power density to char rather than vaporize the bread particles, and toast is an option selectable by a dial on the handle).
What about fights? When two of these blades hit each other there would be a variety of possible effects. Again, it would come down to personal style. There is no need to have any feel at all, the beams could simple go through each other, but where’s the fun in that? Far better that the flakes also carry high electric currents so they could create a nice flurry of sparks and the magnetic interactions between the sabers could also be very powerful. Again, self organisation would allow circuits to form to carry the currents at the right locations to deflect or disrupt the opponent’s saber. A galactic treaty would be needed to ensure that everyone fights by the rules and doesn’t cheat by having an ethereal saber that just goes right through the other one without any nice show. War without glory is nothing, and there can be no glory without a strong emotional investment and physical struggle mediated by magnetic interactions in the sabers.
This saber would have a very nice glow in any color you like, but not have a solid blade, so would look and feel very like the Star Wars saber (when you just want to touch it, the lasers would not activate to slice your fingers off, provided you have read the safety instructions and have the safety lock engaged). The blade could also grow elegantly from the hilt when it is activated, over a second or so, it would not just suddenly appear at full length. We need an on/off button for that bit, but that could simply be emotion or thought recognition so it turns on when you concentrate on The Force, or just feel it.
The power supply could be a battery or graphene capacitor bank of a couple of containers of nice chemicals if you want to build it before we can harness The Force and magic crystals.
A light saber that looks, feels and behaves just like the ones on Star Wars is therefore entirely feasible, consistent with physics, and could be built before 2050. It might use different techniques than I have described, but if no better techniques are invented, we could still do it the way I describe above. One way or another, we will have light sabers.
I quite like Spiderman movies, and having the ability to fire a web at a distant object or villain has its appeal. Since he fires web from his forearm, it must be lightweight to withstand the recoil, and to fire enough to hold his weight while he swings, it would need to have extremely strong fibers. It is therefore pretty obvious that the material of choice when we build such a thing will be graphene, which is even stronger than spider silk (though I suppose a chemical ejection device making spider silk might work too). A thin graphene thread is sufficient to hold him as he swings so it could fit inside a manageable capsule.
So how to eject it?
One way I suggested for making graphene threads is to 3D print the graphene, using print nozzles made of carbon nanotubes and using a very high-speed modulation to spread the atoms at precise spacing so they emerge in the right physical patterns and attach appropriate positive or negative charge to each atom as they emerge from the nozzles so that they are thrown together to make them bond into graphene. This illustration tries to show the idea looking at the nozzles end on, but shows only a part of the array:It doesn’t show properly that the nozzles are at angles to each other and the atoms are ejected in precise phased patterns, but they need to be, since the atoms are too far apart to form graphene otherwise so they need to eject at the right speed in the right directions with the right charges at the right times and if all that is done correctly then a graphene filament would result. The nozzle arrangements, geometry and carbon atom sizes dictate that only narrow filaments of graphene can be produced by each nozzle, but as the threads from many nozzles are intertwined as they emerge from the spinneret, so a graphene thread would be produced made from many filaments. Nevertheless, it is possible to arrange carbon nanotubes in such a way and at the right angle, so provided we can get the high-speed modulation and spacing right, it ought to be feasible. Not easy, but possible. Then again, Spiderman isn’t real yet either.
The ejection device would therefore be a specially fabricated 3D print head maybe a square centimeter in area, backed by a capsule containing finely powdered graphite that could be vaporized to make the carbon atom stream through the nozzles. Some nice lasers might be good there, and some cool looking electronic add-ons to do the phasing and charging. You could make this into one heck of a cool gun.
How thick a thread do we need?
Assuming a 70kg (154lb) man and 2g acceleration during the swing, we need at least 150kg breaking strain to have a small safety margin, bearing in mind that if it breaks, you can fire a new thread. Steel can achieve that with 1.5mm thick wire, but graphene’s tensile strength is 300 times better than steel so 0.06mm is thick enough. 60 microns, or to put it another way, roughly 140 denier, although that is a very quick guess. That means roughly the same sort of graphene thread thickness is needed to support our Spiderman as the nylon used to make your backpack. It also means you could eject well over 10km of thread from a 200g capsule, plenty. Happy to revise my numbers if you have better ones. Google can be a pain!
How fast could the thread be ejected?
Let’s face it. If it can only manage 5cm/s, it is as much use as a chocolate flamethrower. Each bond in graphene is 1.4 angstroms long, so a graphene hexagon is about 0.2nm wide. We would want our graphene filament to eject at around 100m/s, about the speed of a crossbow bolt. 100m/s = 5 x 10^11 carbon atoms ejected per second from each nozzle, in staggered phasing. So, half a terahertz. Easy! That’s well within everyday electronics domains. Phew! If we can do better, we can shoot even faster.
We could therefore soon have a graphene filament ejection device that behaves much like Spiderman’s silk throwers. It needs some better engineers than me to build it, but there are plenty of them around.
Having such a device would be fun for sports, allowing climbers to climb vertical rock faces and overhangs quickly, or to make daring leaps and hope the device works to save them from certain death. It would also have military and police uses. It might even have uses in road accident prevention, yanking pedestrians away from danger or tethering cars instantly to slow them extra quickly. In fact, all the emergency services would have uses for such devices and it could reduce accidents and deaths. I feel confident that Spiderman would think of many more exciting uses too.
Producing graphene silk at 100m/s might also be pretty useful in just about every other manufacturing industry. With ultra-fine yarns with high strength produced at those speeds, it could revolutionize the fashion industry too.
For millennia, people washed clothes by stirring, hitting, squeezing and generally agitating them in rivers or buckets of water. The basic mechanism is to loosen dirt particles and use the water to wash them away or dissolve them.
Mostly, washing machines just automate the same process, agitating clothes in water, sometimes with detergent, to remove dirt from the fabric. Most use detergent to help free the dirt particles but more recently, some use ultrasound to create micro-cavitation bubbles and when they collapse, the shock waves help release the particles. That means the machines can clean at lower temperatures with little or no detergent.
It occurred to me that we don’t really need the machine to tumble the clothes. A ball about the size of a grapefruit could contain batteries and a set of ultrasonic transducers and could be simply chucked in a bucket with the clothes. It could create the bubbles and clean the clothes. Some basic engineering has to be done to make it work but it is entirely feasible.
One of the problems is that ultrasound doesn’t penetrate very far. To solve that, two mechanisms can be used in parallel. One is to let the ball roam around the clothes, and that could be done by changing its density by means of a swim bladder and using gravity to move it up and down, or maybe by adding a few simple paddles or cilia so it can move like a bacterium or by changing its shape so that as it moves up and down, it also moves sideways. The second mechanism is to use phased array ultrasonic transducers so that the beams can be steered and interfere constructively, thereby focusing energy and micro-cavitation generation around the bucket in a chosen pattern.
Making such a ball could be much cheaper than a full sized washing machine, making it ideal for developing countries. Transducers are cheap, and the software to drive them and steer the beams is easy enough and replicable free of charge once developed.
It would contain a rechargeable battery that could use a simple solar panel charging unit (which obviously could be used to generate power for other purposes too).
Such a device could bring cheap washing machine capability to millions of people who can’t afford a full sized washing machine or who are not connected to electricity supplies. It would save time, water and a great deal of drudgery at low expense.
“We’re doomed!” is a frequently recited observation. It is great fun predicting the end of the world and almost as much fun reading about it or watching documentaries telling us we’re doomed. So… just how doomed are we? Initial estimate: Maybe a bit doomed. Read on.
My 2012 blog https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/nuclear-weapons/ addressed some of the possibilities for extinction-level events possibly affecting us. I recently watched a Top 10 list of threats to our existence on TV and it was similar to most you’d read, with the same errors and omissions – nuclear war, global virus pandemic, terminator scenarios, solar storms, comet or asteroid strikes, alien invasions, zombie viruses, that sort of thing. I’d agree that nuclear war is still the biggest threat, so number 1, and a global pandemic of a highly infectious and lethal virus should still be number 2. I don’t even need to explain either of those, we all know why they are in 1st and 2nd place.
The TV list included a couple that shouldn’t be in there.
One inclusion was an mega-eruption of Yellowstone or another super-volcano. A full-sized Yellowstone mega-eruption would probably kill millions of people and destroy much of civilization across a large chunk of North America, but some of us don’t actually live in North America and quite a few might well survive pretty well, so although it would be quite annoying for Americans, it is hardly a TEOTWAWKI threat. It would have big effects elsewhere, just not extinction-level ones. For most of the world it would only cause short-term disruptions, such as economic turbulence, at worst it would start a few wars here and there as regions compete for control in the new world order.
Number 3 on their list was climate change, which is an annoyingly wrong, albeit a popularly held inclusion. The only climate change mechanism proposed for catastrophe is global warming, and the reason it’s called climate change now is because global warming stopped in 1998 and still hasn’t resumed 17 years and 9 months later, so that term has become too embarrassing for doom mongers to use. CO2 is a warming agent and emissions should be treated with reasonable caution, but the net warming contribution of all the various feedbacks adds up to far less than originally predicted and the climate models have almost all proven far too pessimistic. Any warming expected this century is very likely to be offset by reduction in solar activity and if and when it resumes towards the end of the century, we will long since have migrated to non-carbon energy sources, so there really isn’t a longer term problem to worry about. With warming by 2100 pretty insignificant, and less than half a metre sea level rise, I certainly don’t think climate change deserves to be on any list of threats of any consequence in the next century.
The top 10 list missed two out by including climate change and Yellowstone, and my first replacement candidate for consideration might be the grey goo scenario. The grey goo scenario is that self-replicating nanobots manage to convert everything including us into a grey goo. Take away the silly images of tiny little metal robots cutting things up atom by atom and the laughable presentation of this vanishes. Replace those little bots with bacteria that include electronics, and are linked across their own cloud to their own hive AI that redesigns their DNA to allow them to survive in any niche they find by treating the things there as food. When existing bacteria find a niche they can’t exploit, the next generation adapts to it. That self-evolving smart bacteria scenario is rather more feasible, and still results in bacteria that can conquer any ecosystem they find. We would find ourselves unable to fight back and could be wiped out. This isn’t very likely, but it is feasible, could happen by accident or design on our way to transhumanism, and might deserve a place in the top ten threats.
However, grey goo is only one of the NBIC convergence risks we have already imagined (NBIC= Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno). NBIC is a rich seam for doom-seekers. In there you’ll find smart yogurt, smart bacteria, smart viruses, beacons, smart clouds, active skin, direct brain links, zombie viruses, even switching people off. Zombie viruses featured in the top ten TV show too, but they don’t really deserve their own category and more than many other NBIC derivatives. Anyway, that’s just a quick list of deliberate end of world solutions – there will be many more I forgot to include and many I haven’t even thought of yet. Then you have to multiply the list by 3. Any of these could also happen by accident, and any could also happen via unintended consequences of lack of understanding, which is rather different from an accident but just as serious. So basically, deliberate action, accidents and stupidity are three primary routes to the end of the world via technology. So instead of just the grey goo scenario, a far bigger collective threat is NBIC generally and I’d add NBIC collectively into my top ten list, quite high up, maybe 3rd after nuclear war and global virus. AI still deserves to be a separate category of its own, and I’d put it next at 4th.
Another class of technology suitable for abuse is space tech. I once wrote about a solar wind deflector using high atmosphere reflection, and calculated it could melt a city in a few minutes. Under malicious automated control, that is capable of wiping us all out, but it doesn’t justify inclusion in the top ten. One that might is the deliberate deflection of a large asteroid to impact on us. If it makes it in at all, it would be at tenth place. It just isn’t very likely someone would do that.
One I am very tempted to include is drones. Little tiny ones, not the Predators, and not even the ones everyone seems worried about at the moment that can carry 2kg of explosives or Anthrax into the midst of football crowds. Tiny drones are far harder to shoot down, but soon we will have a lot of them around. Size-wise, think of midges or fruit flies. They could be self-organizing into swarms, managed by rogue regimes, terrorist groups, or set to auto, terminator style. They could recharge quickly by solar during short breaks, and restock their payloads from secret supplies that distribute with the swarm. They could be distributed globally using the winds and oceans, so don’t need a plane or missile delivery system that is easily intercepted. Tiny drones can’t carry much, but with nerve gas or viruses, they don’t have to. Defending against such a threat is easy if there is just one, you can swat it. If there is a small cloud of them, you could use a flamethrower. If the sky is full of them and much of the trees and the ground infested, it would be extremely hard to wipe them out. So if they are well designed to cause an extinction level threat, as MAD 2.0 perhaps, then this would be way up in the top tem too, 5th.
Solar storms could wipe out our modern way of life by killing our IT. That itself would kill many people, via riots and fights for the last cans of beans and bottles of water. The most serious solar storms could be even worse. I’ll keep them in my list, at 6th place
Global civil war could become an extinction level event, given human nature. We don’t have to go nuclear to kill a lot of people, and once society degrades to a certain level, well we’ve all watched post-apocalypse movies or played the games. The few left would still fight with each other. I wrote about the Great Western War and how it might result, see
and such a thing could easily spread globally. I’ll give this 7th place.
A large asteroid strike could happen too, or a comet. Ones capable of extinction level events shouldn’t hit for a while, because we think we know all the ones that could do that. So this goes well down the list at 8th.
Alien invasion is entirely possible and could happen at any time. We’ve been sending out radio signals for quite a while so someone out there might have decided to come see whether our place is nicer than theirs and take over. It hasn’t happened yet so it probably won’t, but then it doesn’t have to be very probably to be in the top ten. 9th will do.
High energy physics research has also been suggested as capable of wiping out our entire planet via exotic particle creation, but the smart people at CERN say it isn’t very likely. Actually, I wasn’t all that convinced or reassured and we’ve only just started messing with real physics so there is plenty of time left to increase the odds of problems. I have a spare place at number 10, so there it goes, with a totally guessed probability of physics research causing a problem every 4000 years.
My top ten list for things likely to cause human extinction, or pretty darn close:
Not finished yet though. My title was how nigh is the end, not just what might cause it. It’s hard to assign probabilities to each one but someone’s got to do it. So, I’ll make an arbitrarily wet finger guess in a dark room wearing a blindfold with no explanation of my reasoning to reduce arguments, but hey, that’s almost certainly still more accurate than most climate models, and some people actually believe those. I’m feeling particularly cheerful today so I’ll give my most optimistic assessment.
So, with probabilities of occurrence per year:
I hope you agree those are all optimistic. There have been several near misses in my lifetime of number 1, so my 0.5% could have been 2% or 3% given the current state of the world. Also, 0.25% per year means you’d only expect such a thing to happen every 4 centuries so it is a very small chance indeed. However, let’s stick with them and add them up. The cumulative probability of the top ten is 2.015%. Lets add another arbitrary 0.185% for all the risks that didn’t make it into the top ten, rounding the total up to a nice neat 2.2% per year.
Some of the ones above aren’t possible quite yet, but others will vary in probability year to year, but I think that won’t change the guess overall much. If we take a 2.2% probability per year, we have an expectation value of 45.5 years for civilization life expectancy from now. Expectation date for human extinction:
2015.5 + 45.5 years= 2061,
Obviously the probability distribution extends from now to eternity, but don’t get too optimistic, because on these figures there currently is only a 15% chance of surviving past this century.
If you can think of good reasons why my figures are far too pessimistic, by all means make your own guesses, but make them honestly, with a fair and reasonable assessment of how the world looks socially, religiously, politically, the quality of our leaders, human nature etc, and then add them up. You might still be surprised how little time we have left.
I’ll revise my original outlook upwards from ‘a bit doomed’.
We’re reasonably doomed.