Category Archives: security

AI Activism Part 2: The libel fields

This follows directly from my previous blog on AI activism, but you can read that later if you haven’t already. Order doesn’t matter.

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/05/29/ai-and-activism-a-terminator-sized-threat-targeting-you-soon/

Older readers will remember an emotionally powerful 1984 film called The Killing Fields, set against the backdrop of the Khmer Rouge’s activity in Cambodia, aka the Communist Part of Kampuchea. Under Pol Pot, the Cambodian genocide of 2 to 3 million people was part of a social engineering policy of de-urbanization. People were tortured and murdered (some in the ‘killing fields’ near Phnom Penh) for having connections with former government of foreign governments, for being the wrong race, being ‘economic saboteurs’ or simply for being professionals or intellectuals .

You’re reading this, therefore you fit in at least the last of these groups and probably others, depending on who’s making the lists. Most people don’t read blogs but you do. Sorry, but that makes you a target.

As our social divide increases at an accelerating speed throughout the West, so the choice of weapons is moving from sticks and stones or demonstrations towards social media character assassination, boycotts and forced dismissals.

My last blog showed how various technology trends are coming together to make it easier and faster to destroy someone’s life and reputation. Some of that stuff I was writing about 20 years ago, such as virtual communities lending hardware to cyber-warfare campaigns, other bits have only really become apparent more recently, such as the deliberate use of AI to track personality traits. This is, as I wrote, a lethal combination. I left a couple of threads untied though.

Today, the big AI tools are owned by the big IT companies. They also own the big server farms on which the power to run the AI exists. The first thread I neglected to mention is that Google have made their AI an open source activity. There are lots of good things about that, but for the purposes of this blog, that means that the AI tools required for AI activism will also be largely public, and pressure groups and activist can use them as a start-point for any more advanced tools they want to make, or just use them off-the-shelf.

Secondly, it is fairly easy to link computers together to provide an aggregated computing platform. The SETI project was the first major proof of concept of that ages ago. Today, we take peer to peer networks for granted. When the activist group is ‘the liberal left’ or ‘the far right’, that adds up to a large number of machines so the power available for any campaign is notionally very large. Harnessing it doesn’t need IT skill from contributors. All they’d need to do is click a box on a email or tweet asking for their support for a campaign.

In our new ‘post-fact’, fake news era, all sides are willing and able to use social media and the infamous MSM to damage the other side. Fakes are becoming better. Latest AI can imitate your voice, a chat-bot can decide what it should say after other AI has recognized what someone has said and analysed the opportunities to ruin your relationship with them by spoofing you. Today, that might not be quite credible. Give it a couple more years and you won’t be able to tell. Next generation AI will be able to spoof your face doing the talking too.

AI can (and will) evolve. Deep learning researchers have been looking deeply at how the brain thinks, how to make neural networks learn better and to think better, how to design the next generation to be even smarter than humans could have designed it.

As my friend and robotic psychiatrist Joanne Pransky commented after my first piece, “It seems to me that the real challenge of AI is the human users, their ethics and morals (Their ‘HOS’ – Human Operating System).” Quite! Each group will indoctrinate their AI to believe their ethics and morals are right, and that the other lot are barbarians. Even evolutionary AI is not immune to religious or ideological bias as it evolves. Superhuman AI will be superhuman, but might believe even more strongly in a cause than humans do. You’d better hope the best AI is on your side.

AI can put articles, blogs and tweets out there, pretending to come from you or your friends, colleagues or contacts. They can generate plausible-sounding stories of what you’ve done or said, spoof emails in fake accounts using your ID to prove them.

So we’ll likely see activist AI armies set against each other, running on peer to peer processing clouds, encrypted to hell and back to prevent dismantling. We’ve all thought about cyber-warfare, but we usually only think about viruses or keystroke recorders, or more lately, ransom-ware. These will still be used too as small weapons in future cyber-warfare, but while losing files or a few bucks from an account is a real nuisance, losing your reputation, having it smeared all over the web, with all your contacts being told what you’ve done or said, and shown all the evidence, there is absolutely no way you could possible explain your way convincingly out of every one of those instances. Mud does stick, and if you throw tons of it, even if most is wiped off, much will remain. Trust is everything, and enough doubt cast will eventually erode it.

So, we’ve seen  many times through history the damage people are willing to do to each other in pursuit of their ideology. The Khmer Rouge had their killing fields. As political divide increases and battles become fiercer, the next 10 years will give us The Libel Fields.

You are an intellectual. You are one of the targets.

Oh dear!

 

AI and activism, a Terminator-sized threat targeting you soon

You should be familiar with the Terminator scenario. If you aren’t then you should watch one of the Terminator series of films because you really should be aware of it. But there is another issue related to AI that is arguably as dangerous as the Terminator scenario, far more likely to occur and is a threat in the near term. What’s even more dangerous is that in spite of that, I’ve never read anything about it anywhere yet. It seems to have flown under our collective radar and is already close.

In short, my concern is that AI is likely to become a heavily armed Big Brother. It only requires a few components to come together that are already well in progress. Read this, and if you aren’t scared yet, read it again until you understand it 🙂

Already, social media companies are experimenting with using AI to identify and delete ‘hate’ speech. Various governments have asked them to do this, and since they also get frequent criticism in the media because some hate speech still exists on their platforms, it seems quite reasonable for them to try to control it. AI clearly offers potential to offset the huge numbers of humans otherwise needed to do the task.

Meanwhile, AI is already used very extensively by the same companies to build personal profiles on each of us, mainly for advertising purposes. These profiles are already alarmingly comprehensive, and increasingly capable of cross-linking between our activities across multiple platforms and devices. Latest efforts by Google attempt to link eventual purchases to clicks on ads. It will be just as easy to use similar AI to link our physical movements and activities and future social connections and communications to all such previous real world or networked activity. (Update: Intel intend their self-driving car technology to be part of a mass surveillance net, again, for all the right reasons: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4564480/Self-driving-cars-double-security-cameras.html)

Although necessarily secretive about their activities, government also wants personal profiles on its citizens, always justified by crime and terrorism control. If they can’t do this directly, they can do it via legislation and acquisition of social media or ISP data.

Meanwhile, other experiences with AI chat-bots learning to mimic human behaviors have shown how easily AI can be gamed by human activists, hijacking or biasing learning phases for their own agendas. Chat-bots themselves have become ubiquitous on social media and are often difficult to distinguish from humans. Meanwhile, social media is becoming more and more important throughout everyday life, with provably large impacts in political campaigning and throughout all sorts of activism.

Meanwhile, some companies have already started using social media monitoring to police their own staff, in recruitment, during employment, and sometimes in dismissal or other disciplinary action. Other companies have similarly started monitoring social media activity of people making comments about them or their staff. Some claim to do so only to protect their own staff from online abuse, but there are blurred boundaries between abuse, fair criticism, political difference or simple everyday opinion or banter.

Meanwhile, activists increasingly use social media to force companies to sack a member of staff they disapprove of, or drop a client or supplier.

Meanwhile, end to end encryption technology is ubiquitous. Malware creation tools are easily available.

Meanwhile, successful hacks into large company databases become more and more common.

Linking these various elements of progress together, how long will it be before activists are able to develop standalone AI entities and heavily encrypt them before letting them loose on the net? Not long at all I think.  These AIs would search and police social media, spotting people who conflict with the activist agenda. Occasional hacks of corporate databases will provide names, personal details, contacts. Even without hacks, analysis of publicly available data going back years of everyone’s tweets and other social media entries will provide the lists of people who have ever done or said anything the activists disapprove of.

When identified, they would automatically activate armies of chat-bots, fake news engines and automated email campaigns against them, with coordinated malware attacks directly on the person and indirect attacks by communicating with employers, friends, contacts, government agencies customers and suppliers to do as much damage as possible to the interests of that person.

Just look at the everyday news already about alleged hacks and activities during elections and referendums by other regimes, hackers or pressure groups. Scale that up and realize that the cost of running advanced AI is negligible.

With the very many activist groups around, many driven with extremist zeal, very many people will find themselves in the sights of one or more activist groups. AI will be able to monitor everyone, all the time.  AI will be able to target each of them at the same time to destroy each of their lives, anonymously, highly encrypted, hidden, roaming from server to server to avoid detection and annihilation, once released, impossible to retrieve. The ultimate activist weapon, that carries on the fight even if the activist is locked away.

We know for certain the depths and extent of activism, the huge polarization of society, the increasingly fierce conflict between left and right, between sexes, races, ideologies.

We know about all the nice things AI will give us with cures for cancer, better search engines, automation and economic boom. But actually, will the real future of AI be harnessed to activism? Will deliberate destruction of people’s everyday lives via AI be a real problem that is almost as dangerous as Terminator, but far more feasible and achievable far earlier?

Future sex, gender and relationships: how close can you get?

Using robots for gender play

Using robots for gender play

I recently gave a public talk at the British Academy about future sex, gender, and relationship, asking the question “How close can you get?”, considering particularly the impact of robots. The above slide is an example. People will one day (between 2050 and 2065 depending on their budget) be able to use an android body as their own or even swap bodies with another person. Some will do so to be young again, many will do so to swap gender. Lots will do both. I often enjoy playing as a woman in computer games, so why not ‘come back’ and live all over again as a woman for real? Except I’ll be 90 in 2050.

The British Academy kindly uploaded the audio track from my talk at

If you want to see the full presentation, here is the PowerPoint file as a pdf:

sex-and-robots-british-academy

I guess it is theoretically possible to listen to the audio while reading the presentation. Most of the slides are fairly self-explanatory anyway.

Needless to say, the copyright of the presentation belongs to me, so please don’t reproduce it without permission.

Enjoy.

AI presents a new route to attack corporate value

As AI increases in corporate, social, economic and political importance, it is becoming a big target for activists and I think there are too many vulnerabilities. I think we should be seeing a lot more articles than we are about what developers are doing to guard against deliberate misdirection or corruption, and already far too much enthusiasm for make AI open source and thereby giving mischief-makers the means to identify weaknesses.

I’ve written hundreds of times about AI and believe it will be a benefit to humanity if we develop it carefully. Current AI systems are not vulnerable to the terminator scenario, so we don’t have to worry about that happening yet. AI can’t yet go rogue and decide to wipe out humans by itself, though future AI could so we’ll soon need to take care with every step.

AI can be used in multiple ways by humans to attack systems.

First and most obvious, it can be used to enhance malware such as trojans or viruses, or to optimize denial of service attacks. AI enhanced security systems already battle against adaptive malware and AI can probe systems in complex ways to find vulnerabilities that would take longer to discover via manual inspection. As well as AI attacking operating systems, it can also attack AI by providing inputs that bias its learning and decision-making, giving AI ‘fake news’ to use current terminology. We don’t know the full extent of secret military AI.

Computer malware will grow in scope to address AI systems to undermine corporate value or political campaigns.

A new route to attacking corporate AI, and hence the value in that company that relates in some way to it is already starting to appear though. As companies such as Google try out AI-driven cars or others try out pavement/sidewalk delivery drones, so mischievous people are already developing devious ways to misdirect or confuse them. Kids will soon have such activity as hobbies. Deliberate deception of AI is much easier when people know how they work, and although it’s nice for AI companies to put their AI stuff out there into the open source markets for others to use to build theirs, that does rather steer future systems towards a mono-culture of vulnerability types. A trick that works against one future AI in one industry might well be adaptable to another use in another industry with a little devious imagination. Let’s take an example.

If someone builds a robot to deliberately step in front of a self-driving car every time it starts moving again, that might bring traffic to a halt, but police could quickly confiscate the robot, and they are expensive, a strong deterrent even if the pranksters are hiding and can’t be found. Cardboard cutouts might be cheaper though, even ones with hinged arms to look a little more lifelike. A social media orchestrated campaign against a company using such cars might involve thousands of people across a country or city deliberately waiting until the worst time to step out into a road when one of their vehicles comes along, thereby creating a sort of denial of service attack with that company seen as the cause of massive inconvenience for everyone. Corporate value would obviously suffer, and it might not always be very easy to circumvent such campaigns.

Similarly, the wheeled delivery drones we’ve been told to expect delivering packages any time soon will also have cameras to allow them to avoid bumping into objects or little old ladies or other people, or cats or dogs or cardboard cutouts or carefully crafted miniature tank traps or diversions or small roadblocks that people and pets can easily step over but drones can’t, that the local kids have built from a few twigs or cardboard from a design that has become viral that day. A few campaigns like that with the cold pizzas or missing packages that result could severely damage corporate value.

AI behind websites might also be similarly defeated. An early experiment in making a Twitter chat-bot that learns how to tweet by itself was quickly encouraged by mischief-makers to start tweeting offensively. If people have some idea how an AI is making its decisions, they will attempt to corrupt or distort it to their own ends. If it is heavily reliant on open source AI, then many of its decision processes will be known well enough for activists to develop appropriate corruption tactics. It’s not to early to predict that the proposed AI-based attempts by Facebook and Twitter to identify and defeat ‘fake news’ will fall right into the hands of people already working out how to use them to smear opposition campaigns with such labels.

It will be a sort of arms race of course, but I don’t think we’re seeing enough about this in the media. There is a great deal of hype about the various AI capabilities, a lot of doom-mongering about job cuts (and a lot of reasonable warnings about job cuts too) but very little about the fight back against AI systems by attacking them on their own ground using their own weaknesses.

That looks to me awfully like there isn’t enough awareness of how easily they can be defeated by deliberate mischief or activism, and I expect to see some red faces and corporate account damage as a result.

PS

This article appeared yesterday that also talks about the bias I mentioned: https://techcrunch.com/2016/12/10/5-unexpected-sources-of-bias-in-artificial-intelligence/

Since I wrote this blog, I was asked via Linked-In to clarify why I said that Open Source AI systems would have more security risk. Here is my response:

I wasn’t intending to heap fuel on a dying debate (though since current debate looks the same as in early 1990s it is dying slowly). I like and use open source too. I should have explained my reasoning better to facilitate open source checking: In regular (algorithmic) code, programming error rate should be similar so increasing the number of people checking should cancel out the risk from more contributors so there should be no a priori difference between open and closed. However:

In deep learning, obscurity reappears via neural net weightings being less intuitive to humans. That provides a tempting hiding place.

AI foundations are vulnerable to group-think, where team members share similar world models. These prejudices will affect the nature of OS and CS code and result in AI with inherent and subtle judgment biases which will be less easy to spot than bugs and be more visible to people with alternative world models. Those people are more likely to exist in an OS pool than a CS pool and more likely to be opponents so not share their results.

Deep learning may show the equivalent of political (or masculine and feminine). As well as encouraging group-think, that also distorts the distribution of biases and therefore the cancelling out of errors can no longer be assumed.

Human factors in defeating security often work better than exploiting software bugs. Some of the deep learning AI is designed to mimic humans as well as possible in thinking and in interfacing. I suspect that might also make them more vulnerable to meta-human-factor attacks. Again, exposure to different and diverse cultures will show a non-uniform distribution of error/bias spotting/disclosure/exploitation.

Deep learning will become harder for humans to understand as it develops and becomes more machine dependent. That will amplify the above weaknesses. Think of optical illusions that greatly distort human perception and think of similar in advanced AI deep learning. Errors or biases that are discovered will become more valuable to an opponent since they are less likely to be spotted by others, increasing their black market exploitation risk.

I have not been a programmer for over 20 years and am no security expert so my reasoning may be defective, but at least now you know what my reasoning was and can therefore spot errors in it.

Future Augmented Reality

AR has been hot on the list of future IT tech for 25 years. It has been used for various things since smartphones and tablets appeared but really hit the big time with the recent Pokemon craze.

To get an idea of the full potential of augmented reality, recognize that the web and all its impacts on modern life came from the convergence of two medium sized industries – telecoms and computing. Augmented reality will involve the convergence of everything in the real world with everything in the virtual world, including games, media, the web, art, data, visualization, architecture, fashion and even imagination. That convergence will be enabled by ubiquitous mobile broadband, cloud, blockchain payments, IoT, positioning and sensor tech, image recognition, fast graphics chips, display and visor technology and voice and gesture recognition plus many other technologies.

Just as you can put a Pokemon on a lawn, so you could watch aliens flying around in spaceships or cartoon characters or your favorite celebs walking along the street among the other pedestrians. You could just as easily overlay alternative faces onto the strangers passing by.

People will often want to display an avatar to people looking at them, and that could be different for every viewer. That desire competes with the desire of the viewer to decide how to see other people, so there will be some battles over who controls what is seen. Feminists will certainly want to protect women from the obvious objectification that would follow if a woman can’t control how she is seen. In some cases, such objectification and abuse could even reach into hate crime territory, with racist, sexist or homophobic virtual overlays. All this demands control, but it is far from obvious where that control would come from.

As for buildings, they too can have a virtual appearance. Virtual architecture will show off architect visualization skills, but will also be hijacked by the marketing departments of the building residents. In fact, many stakeholders will want to control what you see when you look at a building. The architects, occupants, city authorities, government, mapping agencies, advertisers, software producers and games designers will all try to push appearances at the viewer, but the viewer might want instead to choose to impose one from their own offerings, created in real time by AI or from large existing libraries of online imagery, games or media. No two people walking together on a street would see the same thing.

Interior decor is even more attractive as an AR application. Someone living in a horrible tiny flat could enhance it using AR to give the feeling of far more space and far prettier decor and even local environment. Virtual windows onto Caribbean beaches may be more attractive than looking at mouldy walls and the office block wall that are physically there. Reality is often expensive but images can be free.

Even fashion offers a platform for AR enhancement. An outfit might look great on a celebrity but real life shapes might not measure up. Makeovers take time and money too. In augmented reality, every garment can look as it should, and that makeup can too. The hardest choice will be to choose a large number of virtual outfits and makeups to go with the smaller range of actual physical appearances available from that wardrobe.

Gaming is in pole position, because 3D world design, imagination, visualization and real time rendering technology are all games technology, so perhaps the biggest surprise in the Pokemon success is that it was the first to really grab attention. People could by now be virtually shooting aliens or zombies hoarding up escalators as they wait for their partners. They are a little late, but such widespread use of personal or social gaming on city streets and in malls will come soon.

AR Visors are on their way too, and though the first offerings will be too expensive to achieve widespread adoption, cheaper ones will quickly follow. The internet of things and sensor technology will create abundant ground-up data to make a strong platform. As visors fall in price, so too will the size and power requirements of the processing needed, though much can be cloud-based.

It is a fairly safe bet that marketers will try very hard to force images at us and if they can’t do that via blatant in-your-face advertising, then product placement will become a very fine art. We should expect strong alliances between the big marketing and advertising companies and top games creators.

As AI simultaneously develops, people will be able to generate a lot of their own overlays, explaining to AI what they’d like and having it produced for them in real time. That would undermine marketing use of AR so again there will be some battles for control. Just as we have already seen owners of landmarks try to trademark the image of their buildings to prevent people including them in photographs, so similar battles will fill the courts over AR. What is to stop someone superimposing the image of a nicer building on their own? Should they need to pay a license to do so? What about overlaying celebrity faces on strangers? What about adding multimedia overlays from the web to make dull and ordinary products do exciting things when you use them? A cocktail served in a bar could have a miniature Sydney fireworks display going on over it. That might make it more exciting, but should the media creator be paid and how should that be policed? We’ll need some sort of AR YouTube at the very least with added geolocation.

The whole arts and media industry will see city streets as galleries and stages on which to show off and sell their creations.

Public services will make more mundane use of AR. Simple everyday context-dependent signage is one application, but overlays would be valuable in emergencies too. If police or fire services could superimpose warning on everyone’s visors nearby, that may help save lives in emergencies. Health services will use AR to assist ordinary people to care for a patient until an ambulance arrives

Shopping provide more uses and more battles. AR will show you what a competing shop has on offer right beside the one in front of you. That will make it easy to digitally trespass on a competitor’s shop floor. People can already do that on their smartphone, but AR will put the full image large as life right in front of your eyes to make it very easy to compare two things. Shops won’t want to block comms completely because that would prevent people wanting to enter their shop at all, so they will either have to compete harder or find more elaborate ways of preventing people making direct visual comparisons in-store. Perhaps digital trespassing might become a legal issue.

There will inevitably be a lot of social media use of AR too. If people get together to demonstrate, it will be easier to coordinate them. If police insist they disperse, they could still congregate virtually. Dispersed flash mobs could be coordinated as much as ones in the same location. That makes AR a useful tool for grass-roots democracy, especially demonstrations and direct action, but it also provides a platform for negative uses such as terrorism. Social entrepreneurs will produce vast numbers of custom overlays for millions of different purposes and contexts. Today we have tens of millions of websites and apps. Tomorrow we will have even more AR overlays.

These are just a few of the near term uses of augmented reality and a few hints as issues arising. It will change every aspect of our lives in due course, just as the web has, but more so.

 

Cellular blockchain, cellular bitcoin

Bitcoin has been around a while and the blockchain foundations on which it is built are extending organically into other areas.

Blockchain is a strongly encrypted distributed database, a ledger that records every transaction. That’s all fine, it works OK, and it doesn’t need fixed.

However, for some applications or new cryptocurrencies, there may be some benefit in making a cellular blockchain to limit database size, protect against network outage, and harden defenses against any local decryption. These may become important as cyber-terrorism increases and as quantum computing develops. They would also be more suited to micro-transactions and micro-currencies.

If you’ve made it this far, you almost certainly don’t need any further explanation.

New book: Society Tomorrow

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

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

Frontcover

Here’s the introduction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It will be out soon.

Future sex, gender and design

This is a presentation I made for the Eindhoven Design Academy. It is mostly self-explanatory

Slide1

Slide2Slide3 Slide4 Slide5 Slide6 Slide7 Slide8 Slide9 Slide10 Slide11 Slide12 Slide13 Slide14 Slide15 Slide16 Slide17 Slide18 Slide19 Slide20

 

Future air travel

Now and then I get asked about future air travel, sometimes about planes, sometimes about the travel and tourism industry, sometimes climate change or luxury. There is already lots in the media about the future of the industry, such as NASA’s supersonic aircraft, e.g. https://t.co/PWpd2yVN0y or the latest business class space design concepts to cram in even more luxury, e.g. http://www.airlinereporter.com/2016/03/business-class-reimagined-etihad-airways-a380-business-studio-review/ so I won’t waste time repeating stuff you can find on Google. Here are some things I haven’t seen yet instead:

Aircraft skin design – video panels

Aircraft skins are generally painted in carrier colors and logos, but a new development in luxury yachts might hint at aircraft skins that behave as video screens instead. The designs in

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-3475039/Moonstone-superyacht-LED-triangles-light-display.html

are meant to mimic reflections of the sea, since it is a yacht skin, but obviously higher resolution polymer displays on an aircraft could display anything at all. It is surprising give aircraft prices that this hasn’t already been done, at least for large panels. One possible reason is that the outer skin heats up a lot during flight. That might bar some types of panel being used, but some LEDs can function perfectly well at the sort of temperatures expected for civil aircraft.

Integration with self-driving cars – terminal-free flying

A decade or more ago, I suggested integrating self driving cars systems into rail, so that a long chain of self driving cars could form a train. Obviously Euro-tunnel already has actual trains carry cars, but what I meant was that the cars can tether to each other electronically and drive themselves, behaving as a train as a half way evolution point to fully replacing trains later with self driving pod systems. As each car reaches its local station, it would peel off and carry on the roads to the final destination. The other pods would close together to fill the gap, or expand gaps to allow other pods to join from that station. Previous blogs have detailed how such systems can be powered for city or countrywide use.

Stage 1

Such end-to-end self driving could work all the way to the aircraft too. To avoid crime and terrorism abuses, self-driving cars owned by large fleet management companies – which will be almost all of them in due course – will have to impose security checks on passengers. Think about it. If that were not so, any terrorist would be able to order a car with an app on an anonymous phone, fill it full of explosives, tell it where to go, and then watch as it does the suicide bombing run all by itself. Or a drug gang could use them for deliveries. If security is already imposed with proper identity checks, then it would be easy to arrange a safe area in the airport for a simple security check for explosives, guns etc, before the car resumes its trip all the way to an aircraft departure gate. System restrictions could prevent passengers leaving the car during the airport part of the journey except at authorized locations. The rest of the terminal would be superfluous.

Stage 2

Then it starts to get interesting. My guess is that the optimal design for these self-driving pods would be uniform sized cuboids. Then, congestion and air resistance can be minimized and passenger comfort optimized. It would then be possible to link lots of these pods together with their passengers and luggage still in them, and drive the whole lot into a large aircraft. They could be stacked in layers of course too (my own design of pods doesn’t even use wheels) to maximize cabin use. Aisles could be made to allow passengers out to visit loos or exercise.

Many people of my age will think of Thunderbird 2 at this point. And why not? Not such a bad idea. A huge box acting as a departure gate for dozens of small pods, ready for the aircraft to land, drop off its existing pod, refuel, pick up the new box of pods, and take off again. Even the refuel could be box-implemented, part of the box structure or a pod.

Stage 3

Naturally, airlines might decide that they know best how to provide best comfort to their passengers. So they might design their own fleets of special pods to pick up passengers from their homes and bring them all the way onto the aircraft, then all the way to final destination at the other end. That gives them a huge opportunity for adding luxury and branding or other market differentiation. Their fleets would mix on the roads with fleets from other companies.

Stage 4

However, it is hard to think of any other sector that is as adept by necessity at making the very most of the smallest spaces as airlines. Having started to use these advantages for self driving pods for their own air passengers, many of those passengers would be very happy to also buy the use of those same pods even when they are not flying anywhere, others would learn too, and very soon airlines could become a major fleet manager company for self-driving cars.

Balloon trips and cruises

Large balloons and airships are coming back into business. e.g. http://news.sky.com/story/1654409/worlds-largest-aircraft-set-for-uk-test-flight

Solid balloons will be likely too. I suggested using carbon foam in my sci-fi book Space Anchor, and my superheroes travel around at high speed in their huge carbon balloon, the Carballoon, rescuing people from burning buildings or other disasters, or dumping foam to capture escaping criminals. Since then, Google have also been playing with making lighter than air foams and presumably they will use them for Project Loon.

Lighter than air cities have been explored in the computer game Bioshock Infinite, floating islands in the films Avatar and Buck Rogers. There is certainly no shortage of imagination when it comes to making fun destinations floating in the air. So I think that once the materials become cheap enough, we will start to see this balloon industry really evolve into a major tourism sector where people spend days or weeks in the air. Even conventional balloon experiences such as safaris would be better if the burners and their noise scaring the animals are not needed. A solid balloon could manage fine with just a quiet fan.

Whatever the type of floating destination, or duration of short trip or cruise, of course you need to get to them, so that presents an obvious opportunity for the airline industry, but designing them, providing services, holiday packages, bookings and logistics are also territories where the airline industry might be in pole position, especially since space might still be at a premium.

Air fuel

Although there have already been various demonstrations of hydrogen planes and solar powered planes, I really do not think these are likely to become mainstream. One of the main objections to using conventional fuel is the CO2 emissions, but my readers will know I don’t believe we face a short term threat from CO2-induced climate change and in the mid term, ground use of fossil fuels will gradually decline or move towards shale gas, which produces far less CO2. With all the CO2 savings from ground use decline, there will be far less pressure on airlines to also reduce. Since it is too hard to economically deliver suitable energy density for aircraft use, it will be recognized as a special case that the overall CO2 budgets can easily sustain. The future airline industry will use air fuel not unlike today’s. Let’s consider the alternatives.

Solar is fine for the gossamer-light high altitude aircraft for surveillance of communications, but little use for passenger flight. Covering a plane upper with panels will simply not yield enough power. Large batteries could store enough energy for very short flights, but again not much use since planes can’t compete in short trips. Energy density isn’t good enough. Fuel cells are still the technology of the future and are unlikely to be suited to planes. It is easier to simply use the fuel direct to create thrust. Another red herring is hydrogen. Yes it can be done, but there is little advantage and lots of disadvantages. The output is water vapor, which sounds safe, but is actually a stronger greenhouse effect than CO2 and since aircraft fly high, it will stay in the atmosphere doing its warming far longer (for trans-polar flights it may even become stratospheric water vapor). So hydrogen is no panacea.

So, no change here then.

Threats

There have already been many instances of near collisions with drones. Many drones are very small, but some can carry significant payloads. If a drone carries a lump of solid metal, or an explosive device, it could easily do enough harm to a fast-flying aircraft to cause a crash. That makes drones a strong terrorist threat to aircraft. Even without the intent to harm, any village idiot could fly a drone near to a plane to get pictures and still cause problems.

Another threat that is becoming serious is lasers. Shone from the ground, a high powered hand-held laser could blind a pilot.

http://www.wickedlasers.com/arctic shows the sort of thing you can already buy. $400 buys you 3.5W of blue light. Really cool stuff in the right hands, and the sort of gadget I’d love to own if I could trust myself to be responsible with it, (I did look straight into a laser beam at university, as you do when you’re a student) but not the sort of thing you want used deliberately against pilots.

These two threats are already very apparent, but put them together, and you have a modest drone bought anonymously fitted with a high powered laser (I don’t know whether identity checks are needed for the laser purchase, but I suspect plenty enough are already in circulation). A simple camera linked to a basic pattern recognition system would easily allow the drone to move to an optimal location and then target the laser into the aircraft cockpit and likely into the pilots’ eyes. This is not something that should be possible to build without lots of strict identity checks, but especially for the drones bit, the law is years behind where it ought to be. Lasers of this power also need to be classed as lethal weapons.

New business models

The latest startup fashions suggest someone will soon build a crowd-flying company. A bunch of people in one area wanting to fly to another zone could link electronically via such a company app, and hire a plane/self-driving pods/departure gate/pilot/crew and fly with very little inter-mediation. The main barrier is the strong regulation in the airline industry which is there for all sorts of good reasons, but that is not an impenetrable barrier, just a large one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The future of fashion: hair waves

I don’t do hair. I shave my head to 3mm every month or so, and never let it grow long., but I watch telly and observe that very many women use hair extensions and wigs, and I spot a high voltage technology opportunity.

Remember the Van der Graff generator in your school physics lab? It makes a high voltage than makes your hair stand up. When you finally touch something, the tiny charge involved dissipates and gives you a tiny shock.

So, suppose you are a wig manufacturer, making a wig with fine filaments, or hair I guess. You add a base layer of circuitry, ideally separated from your scalp by an insulating layer. You design the circuits so that you can apply specific voltages individually to any region of the hair, and you design a nice algorithm to move those voltages around in patterns, so that patches of hair stand up, fall down, and overall the effect is dynamic patterns such as waves all over your head. Hair will be mobile.

Total charge doesn’t need to change much, mainly just be moved around, so battery drain would be OK, and the power supply could be hidden in a collar or shoulder pad.

Hair patterns could even adopt fashion language, used for secret tribal signalling, and internet of hair will be needed. It is also capable of misuse and another potential signalling path to guard against in casinos.

It would also be trivially easy to monitor your emotional state, or even thought recognition, and have you hair respond and illustrate your emotions. So when you think “shock, horror”, you hair would actually stand on end 🙂

Well, you get the idea. Fun! And you read it here first.