Category Archives: technology

Technology 2040: Technotopia denied by human nature

This is a reblog of the Business Weekly piece I wrote for their 25th anniversary.

It’s essentially a very compact overview of the enormous scope for technology progress, followed by a reality check as we start filtering that potential through very imperfect human nature and systems.

25 years is a long time in technology, a little less than a third of a lifetime. For the first third, you’re stuck having to live with primitive technology. Then in the middle third it gets a lot better. Then for the last third, you’re mainly trying to keep up and understand it, still using the stuff you learned in the middle third.

The technology we are using today is pretty much along the lines of what we expected in 1990, 25 years ago. Only a few details are different. We don’t have 2Gb/s per second to the home yet and AI is certainly taking its time to reach human level intelligence, let alone consciousness, but apart from that, we’re still on course. Technology is extremely predictable. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is just how few surprises there have been.

The next 25 years might be just as predictable. We already know some of the highlights for the coming years – virtual reality, augmented reality, 3D printing, advanced AI and conscious computers, graphene based materials, widespread Internet of Things, connections to the nervous system and the brain, more use of biometrics, active contact lenses and digital jewellery, use of the skin as an IT platform, smart materials, and that’s just IT – there will be similarly big developments in every other field too. All of these will develop much further than the primitive hints we see today, and will form much of the technology foundation for everyday life in 2040.

For me the most exciting trend will be the convergence of man and machine, as our nervous system becomes just another IT domain, our brains get enhanced by external IT and better biotech is enabled via nanotechnology, allowing IT to be incorporated into drugs and their delivery systems as well as diagnostic tools. This early stage transhumanism will occur in parallel with enhanced genetic manipulation, development of sophisticated exoskeletons and smart drugs, and highlights another major trend, which is that technology will increasingly feature in ethical debates. That will become a big issue. Sometimes the debates will be about morality, and religious battles will result. Sometimes different parts of the population or different countries will take opposing views and cultural or political battles will result. Trading one group’s interests and rights against another’s will not be easy. Tensions between left and right wing views may well become even higher than they already are today. One man’s security is another man’s oppression.

There will certainly be many fantastic benefits from improving technology. We’ll live longer, healthier lives and the steady economic growth from improving technology will make the vast majority of people financially comfortable (2.5% real growth sustained for 25 years would increase the economy by 85%). But it won’t be paradise. All those conflicts over whether we should or shouldn’t use technology in particular ways will guarantee frequent demonstrations. Misuses of tech by criminals, terrorists or ethically challenged companies will severely erode the effects of benefits. There will still be a mix of good and bad. We’ll have fixed some problems and created some new ones.

The technology change is exciting in many ways, but for me, the greatest significance is that towards the end of the next 25 years, we will reach the end of the industrial revolution and enter a new age. The industrial revolution lasted hundreds of years, during which engineers harnessed scientific breakthroughs and their own ingenuity to advance technology. Once we create AI smarter than humans, the dependence on human science and ingenuity ends. Humans begin to lose both understanding and control. Thereafter, we will only be passengers. At first, we’ll be paying passengers in a taxi, deciding the direction of travel or destination, but it won’t be long before the forces of singularity replace that taxi service with AIs deciding for themselves which routes to offer us and running many more for their own culture, on which we may not be invited. That won’t happen overnight, but it will happen quickly. By 2040, that trend may already be unstoppable.

Meanwhile, technology used by humans will demonstrate the diversity and consequences of human nature, for good and bad. We will have some choice of how to use technology, and a certain amount of individual freedom, but the big decisions will be made by sheer population numbers and statistics. Terrorists, nutters and pressure groups will harness asymmetry and vulnerabilities to cause mayhem. Tribal differences and conflicts between demographic, religious, political and other ideological groups will ensure that advancing technology will be used to increase the power of social conflict. Authorities will want to enforce and maintain control and security, so drones, biometrics, advanced sensor miniaturisation and networking will extend and magnify surveillance and greater restrictions will be imposed, while freedom and privacy will evaporate. State oppression is sadly as likely an outcome of advancing technology as any utopian dream. Increasing automation will force a redesign of capitalism. Transhumanism will begin. People will demand more control over their own and their children’s genetics, extra features for their brains and nervous systems. To prevent rebellion, authorities will have little choice but to permit leisure use of smart drugs, virtual escapism, a re-scoping of consciousness. Human nature itself will be put up for redesign.

We may not like this restricted, filtered, politically managed potential offered by future technology. It offers utopia, but only in a theoretical way. Human nature ensures that utopia will not be the actual result. That in turn means that we will need strong and wise leadership, stronger and wiser than we have seen of late to get the best without also getting the worst.

The next 25 years will be arguably the most important in human history. It will be the time when people will have to decide whether we want to live together in prosperity, nurturing and mutual respect, or to use technology to fight, oppress and exploit one another, with the inevitable restrictions and controls that would cause. Sadly, the fine engineering and scientist minds that have got us this far will gradually be taken out of that decision process.

Powering electric vehicles in the city

Simple stuff today just to stop my brain seizing up, nothing terribly new.

Grid lock is usually a term often used to describe interlocking traffic jams. But think about a canal lock, used to separate different levels of canal. A grid lock could be used to manage the different levels of stored and kinetic energy within a transport grid, keeping it local as far as possible to avoid transmission losses, and transferring it between different parts of the grid when necessary.

Formula 1 racing cars have energy recovery systems that convert kinetic energy to stored electrical energy during braking – Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS). In principle, energy could be shared between members of a race team by transmitting it from one car to another instead of simply storing it on board. For a city-wide system, that makes even more sense. There will always be some vehicles coasting, some braking, some accelerating and some stopped. Storing the energy on board is fine, but requires large capacitor banks or batteries, and that adds very significant cost. If an electrical grid allowed the energy to be moved around between vehicles, each vehicle would only need much smaller storage so costs would fall.

I am very much in favor of powering electric vehicles by using inductive pads on the road surface to transmit energy via coils on the car underside as the vehicles pass over them.  Again, this means that vehicles can manage with small batteries or capacitor banks. Since these are otherwise a large part of the cost, it makes electric transport much more cost-effective. The coils on the road surface could be quite thin, making them unattractive to metal thieves, and perhaps ultimately could be made of graphene once that is cheap to produce.

Moving energy among the many coils only needs conventional electrical grid technology. Peer to peer electrical generation business models are developing too to sell energy between households without the energy companies taking the lion’s share. Electricity can even be packetised by writing an address and header with details of the sender account and the quantity of energy in the following packet. Since overall energy use will fluctuate somewhat, the infrastructure also needs some storage to hold local energy surpluses and feed them back into accelerating vehicles as required, and if demand is too low, to store energy in local batteries. If even that isn’t sufficient capacity, then the grid might open grid locks to overflow larger surpluses onto other regions of the city or onto the main grid. Usually however, there would be an inflow of energy from the main grid to power all the vehicles, so transmission in the reverse direction would be only occasional.

Such a system keeps most energy local, reducing transmission losses and simplifying signalling, whilst allowing local energy producers to be included and enabling storage for renewable energy. As one traffic stream slows, another can recycle that same energy to accelerate. It reduces the environmental demands of running a transport system, so has both cost and environmental benefits.

 

 

Increasing internet capacity: electron pipes

The electron pipe is a slightly mis-named high speed comms solution that would make optical fibre look like two bean cans and a bit of loose string. I invented it in 1990, but it still remains in the future since we can’t do it yet, and it might not even be possible, some of the physics is in doubt.  The idea is to use an evacuated tube and send a precision controlled beam of high energy particles down it instead of crude floods of electrons down a wire or photons in fibres. Here’s a pathetic illustration:

Electron pipe

 

Initially I though of using 1MeV electrons, then considered that larger particles such as neutrons or protons or even ionised atoms might be better, though neutrons would certainly be harder to control. The wavelength of 1MeV electrons would be pretty small, allowing very high frequency signals and data rates, many times what is possible with visible photons down fibres. Whether this could be made to work over long distances is questionable, but over short distances it should be feasible and might be useful for high speed chip interconnects.

The energy of the beam could be made a lot higher, increasing bandwidth, but 1MeV seamed a reasonable start point, offering a million times more bandwidth than fibre.

The Problem

Predictions for memory, longer term storage, cloud service demands and computing speeds are already heading towards fibre limits when millions of users are sharing single fibres. Although the limits won’t be reached soon, it is useful to have a technology in the R&D pipeline that can extend the life of the internet after fibre fills up, to avoid costs rising. If communication is not to become a major bottleneck (even assuming we can achieve these rates by then), new means of transmission need to be found.

The Solution

A way must be found to utilise higher frequency entities than light. The obvious candidates are either gamma rays or ‘elementary’ particles such as electrons, protons and their relatives. Planck’s Law shows that frequency is related to energy. A 1.3µm photon has a frequency of 2.3 x 1014. By contrast  1MeV gives a frequency of 2.4 x 10^20 and a factor of a million increase in bandwidth, assuming it can be used (much higher energies should be feasible if higher bandwidth is needed, 10Gev energies would give 10^24). An ‘electron pipe’ containing a beam of high energy electrons may therefore offer a longer term solution to the bandwidth bottleneck. Electrons are easily accelerated and contained and also reasonably well understood. The electron beam could be prevented form colliding with the pipe walls by strong magnetic fields which may become practical in the field through progress in superconductivity. Such a system may well be feasible. Certainly prospects of data rates of these orders are appealing.

Lots of R&D would be needed to develop such communication systems. At first glance, they would seem to be more suited to high speed core network links, where the presumably high costs could be justified. Obvious problems exist which need to be studied, such as mechanisms for ultra high speed modulation and detection of the signals. If the problems can be solved, the rewards are high. The optical ether idea suffers from bandwidth constraint problems. Adding factors of 10^6 – 10^10 on top of this may make a difference!

 

How to decide green policies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I rest my case.

 

 

 

The IT dark age – The relapse

I long ago used a slide in my talks about the IT dark age, showing how we’d come through a period (early 90s)where engineers were in charge and it worked, into an era where accountants had got hold of it and were misusing it (mid 90s), followed by a terrible period where administrators discovered it and used it in the worst ways possible (late 90s, early 00s). After that dark age, we started to emerge into an age of IT enlightenment, where the dumbest of behaviors had hopefully been filtered out and we were starting to use it correctly and reap the benefits.

Well, we’ve gone into relapse. We have entered a period of uncertain duration where the hard-won wisdom we’d accumulated and handed down has been thrown in the bin by a new generation of engineers, accountants and administrators and some extraordinarily stupid decisions and system designs are once again being made. The new design process is apparently quite straightforward: What task are we trying to solve? How can we achieve this in the least effective, least secure, most time-consuming, most annoying, most customer loyalty destructive way possible? Now, how fast can we implement that? Get to it!

If aliens landed and looked at some of the recent ways we have started to use IT, they’d conclude that this was all a green conspiracy, designed to make everyone so anti-technology that we’d be happy to throw hundreds of years of progress away and go back to the 16th century. Given that they have been so successful in destroying so much of the environment under the banner of protecting it, there is sufficient evidence that greens really haven’t a clue what they are doing, but worse still, gullible political and business leaders will cheerfully do the exact opposite of what they want as long as the right doublespeak is used when they’re sold the policy.

The main Green laboratory in the UK is the previously nice seaside town of Brighton. Being an extreme socialist party, that one might think would be a binperson’s best friend, the Greens in charge nevertheless managed to force their binpeople to go on strike, making what ought to be an environmental paradise into a stinking litter-strewn cesspit for several weeks. They’ve also managed to create near-permanent traffic gridlock supposedly to maximise the amount of air pollution and CO2 they can get from the traffic.

More recently, they have decided to change their parking meters for the very latest IT. No longer do you have to reach into your pocket and push a few coins into a machine and carry a paper ticket all the way back to your car windscreen. Such a tedious process consumed up to a minute of your day. It simply had to be replaced with proper modern technology. There are loads of IT solutions to pick from, but the Greens apparently decided to go for the worst possible implementation, resulting in numerous press reports about how awful it is. IT should not be awful, it can and should be done in ways that are better in almost every way than old-fashioned systems. I rarely drive anyway and go to Brighton very rarely, but I am still annoyed at incompetent or deliberate misuse of IT.

If I were to go there by car, I’d also have to go via the Dartford Crossing, where again, inappropriate IT has been used incompetently to replace a tollbooth system that makes no economic sense in the first place. The government would be better off if it simply paid for it directly. Instead, each person using it is likely to be fined if they don’t know how it operates, and even if they do, they have to spend a lot more expensive time and effort to pay than before. Again, it is a severe abuse of IT, conferring a tiny benefit on a tiny group of people at the expense of significant extra load on very many people.

Another financial example is the migration to self-pay terminals in shops. In Stansted Airport’s W H Smith a couple of days ago, I sat watching a long queue of people taking forever to buy newspapers. Instead of a few seconds handing over a coin and walking out, it was taking a minute or more to read menus, choose which buttons to touch, inspecting papers to find barcodes, fumbling for credit cards, checking some more boxes, checking they hadn’t left their boarding pass or paper behind, and finally leaving. An assistant stood there idle, watching people struggle instead of serving them in a few seconds. I wanted a paper but the long queue was sufficient deterrent and they lost the sale. Who wins in such a situation? The staff who lost their jobs certainly didn’t. I as the customer had no paper to read so I didn’t win. I would be astonished with all the lost sales if W H Smith were better off so they didn’t win. The airport will likely make less from their take too. Even the terminal manufacturing industry only swaps one type of POS terminal for another with marginally different costs. I’m not knocking W H Smith, they are just another of loads of companies doing this now. But it isn’t progress, it is going backwards.

When I arrived at my hotel, another electronic terminal was replacing a check-in assistant with a check-in terminal usage assistant. He was very friendly and helpful, but check-in wasn’t any easier or faster for me, and the terminal design still needed him to be there too because like so many others, it was designed by people who have zero understanding of how other people actually do things.  Just like those ticket machines in rail stations that we all detest.

When I got to my room, the thermostat used a tiny LCD panel, with tiny meaningless symbols, with no backlight, in a dimly lit room, with black text on a dark green background. So even after searching for my reading glasses, since I hadn’t brought a torch with me, I couldn’t see a thing on it so I couldn’t use the air conditioning. An on/off switch and a simple wheel with temperature marked on it used to work perfectly fine. If it ain’t broke, don’t do your very best to totally wreck it.

These are just a few everyday examples, alongside other everyday IT abuses such as minute fonts and frequent use of meaningless icons instead of straightforward text. IT is wonderful. We can make devices with absolutely superb capability for very little cost. We can make lives happier, better, easier, healthier, more prosperous, even more environmentally friendly.

Why then are so many people so intent on using advanced IT to drag us back into another dark age?

 

 

Apple’s watch? No thanks

I was busy writing a blog about how technology often barks up the wrong trees, when news appeared on specs for the new Apple watch, which seems to crystallize the problem magnificently. So I got somewhat diverted and the main blog can wait till I have some more free time, which isn’t today

I confess that my comments (this is not a review) are based on the specs I have read about it, I haven’t actually got one to play with, but I assume that the specs listed in the many reviews out there are more or less accurate.

Apple’s new watch barks up a tree we already knew was bare. All through the 1990s Casio launched a series of watches with all kinds of extra functions including pulse monitoring and biorhythms and phone books, calculators and TV remote controls. At least, those are the ones I’ve bought. Now, Casio seem to focus mainly on variations of the triple sensor ones for sports that measure atmospheric pressure, temperature and direction. Those are functions they know are useful and don’t run the battery down too fast. There was even a PC watch, though I don’t think that one was Casio, and a GPS watch, with a battery that lasted less than an hour.

There is even less need now for a watch that does a range of functions that are easily done in a smartphone, and that is the Apple watch’s main claim to existence – it can do the things your phone does but on a smaller screen. Hell, I’m 54, I use my tablet to do the things younger people with better eyesight do on their mobile phone screens, the last thing I want is an even smaller screen. I only use my phone for texts and phone calls, and alarms only if I don’t have my Casio watch with me – they are too hard to set on my Tissot. The main advantage of a watch is its contact with the skin, allowing it to monitor the skin surface and blood passing below, and also pick up electrical activity. However, it is the sensor that does this, and any processing of that sensor data could and should be outsourced to the smartphone. Adding other things to the phone such as playing music is loading far too much demand onto what has to be a tiny energy supply. The Apple watch only manages a few hours of life if used for more than the most basic functions, and then needs 90 minutes on a charger to get 80% charged again. By contrast, last month I spent all of 15 minutes and £0.99 googling the battery specs and replacement process, buying, unpacking and actually changing the batteries on my Casio Protrek after 5 whole years, which means the Casio batteries last 12,500 times as long and the average time I spend on battery replacement is half a second per day. My Tissot Touch batteries also last 5 years, and it does the same things. By contrast, I struggle to remember to charge my iPhone and when I do remember, it is very often just before I need it so I frequently end up making calls with it plugged into the charger. My watch would soon move to a drawer if it needed charged every day and I could only use it sparingly during that day.

So the Apple watch might appeal briefly to gadget freaks who are desperate to show off, but I certainly won’t be buying one. As a watch, it fails abysmally. As a smartphone substitute, it also fails. As a simple sensor array with the processing and energy drain elsewhere, it fails yet again. As a status symbol, it would show that I am desperate for attention and to show of my wealth, so it also fails. It is an extra nuisance, an extra thing to remember to charge and utterly pointless. If I was given one free, I’d play with it for a few minutes and then put it in a drawer. If I had to pay for one, I’d maybe pay a pound for its novelty value.

No thanks.

The future of publishing

There are more information channels now than ever. These include thousands of new TV and radio channels that are enabled by the internet, millions of YouTube videos, new electronic book and magazine platforms such as tablets and mobile devices, talking books, easy print-on-demand, 3D printing, holograms, games platforms, interactive books, augmented reality and even AI chatbots, all in parallel with blogs, websites and social media such as Facebook, Linked-In, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and so on. It has never been easier to publish something. It no longer has to cost money, and many avenues can even be anonymous so it needn’t even cost reputation if you publish something you shouldn’t. In terms of means and opportunity, there is plenty of both. Motive is built into human nature. People want to talk, to write, to create, to be looked at, to be listened to.

That doesn’t guarantee fame and fortune. Tens of millions of electronic books are written by software every year – mostly just themed copy and paste collections using content found online –  so that already makes it hard for a book to be seen, even before you consider the millions of other human authors. There are hundreds of times more new books every year now than when we all had to go via ‘proper publishers’.

The limiting factor is attention. There are only so many eyeballs, they only have a certain amount of available time each day and they are very spoiled for choice. Sure, we’re making more people, but population has doubled in 30 years, whereas published material volume doubles every few months. That means ever more competition for the attention of those eyeballs.

When there is a glut of material available for consumption, potential viewers must somehow decide what to look at to make the most of their own time. Conventional publishing had that sorted very well. Publishers only published things they knew they could sell, and made sure the work was done to a high quality – something it is all too easy to skip when self-publishing – and devoted the largest marketing budgets at those products that had the greatest potential. That was mostly determined by how well known the author was and how well liked their work. So when you walked through a bookshop door, you are immediately faced with the books most people want. New authors took years of effort to get to those places, and most never did. Now, it is harder still. Self-publishing authors can hit the big time, but it is very hard to do so, and very few make it.

Selling isn’t the only motivation for writing. Writing helps me formulate ideas, flesh them out, debug them, and tidy them up into cohesive arguments or insights. It helps me maintain a supply of fresh and original content that I need to stay in business. I write even when I have no intention of publishing and a large fraction of my writing stays as drafts, never published, having served its purpose during the act of writing. (Even so, when I do bother to write a book, it is still very nice if someone wants to buy it). It is also fun to write, and rewarding to see a finished piece appear. My sci-fi novel Space Anchor was written entirely for the joy of writing. I had a fantastic month writing it. I started on 3 July and published on 29th. I woke every night with ideas for the next day and couldn’t wait to get up and start typing. When I ran out of ideas, I typed its final paragraphs, lightly edited it and published.

The future of writing looks even more fun. Artificial intelligence is nowhere near the level yet where you can explain an idea to a computer in ordinary conversation and tell it to get on with it, but it will be one day, fairly soon. Interactive writing using AI to do the work will be very reward-rich, creativity-rich, a highly worthwhile experience in itself regardless of any market. Today, it takes forever to write and tidy up a piece. If AI does most of that, you could concentrate on the ideas and story, the fun bits. AI could also make suggestions to make your work better. We could all write fantastic novels. With better AI, it could even make a film based on your ideas. We could all write sci-fi films to rival the best blockbusters of today. But when there are a billion fantastic films to watch, the same attention problem applies. If nobody is going to see your work because of simple statistics, then that is only a problem if your motivation is to be seen or to sell. If you are doing it for your own pleasure, then it could be just as rewarding, maybe even more so. A lot of works would be produced simply for pleasure, but that still dilutes the marketplace for those hoping to sell.

An AI could just write all by itself and cut you out of the loop completely. It could see what topics are currently fashionable and instantaneously make works to tap that market. Given the volume of computer-produced books we already have, adding high level AI could fill the idea space in a genre very quickly. A book or film would compete against huge numbers of others catering to similar taste, many of which are free.

AI also extends the market for cooperative works. Groups of people could collaborate with AI doing all the boring admin and organisation as well as production and value add. The same conversational interface would work just as well for software or app or website production, or setting up a company. Groups of friends could formulate ideas together, and produce works for their own consumption. Books or films that are made together are shared experiences and help bind the group together, giving them shared stories that each has contributed to. Such future publication could therefore be part of socialization, a tribal glue, tribal identity.

This future glut of content doesn’t mean we won’t still have best sellers. As the market supply expands towards infinity, the attention problem means that people will be even more drawn to proven content suppliers. Brands become more important. Production values and editorial approach become more important. People who really understand a market sector and have established a strong presence in it will do even better as the market expands, because customers will seek out trusted suppliers.

So the future publishing market may be a vast sea of high quality content, attached to even bigger oceans of low quality content. In that world of virtually infinite supply, the few islands where people can feel on familiar ground and have easy access to a known and trusted quality product will become strong attractors. Supply and demand equations normally show decreasing price as supply rises, but I suspect that starts to reverse once supply passes a critical point. Faced with an infinite supply of cheap products, people will actually pay more to narrow the choice. In that world, self-publishing will primarily be self-motivated, for fun or self-actualization with only a few star authors making serious money from it. Professional publishing will still have most of the best channels with the most reliable content and the most customers and it will still be big business.

I’ll still do both.

A potential architectural nightmare

I read in the papers that Google’s boss has rejected ‘boring’ plans for their London HQ. Hooray! Larry Page says he wants something that will be worthy of standing 100 years. I don’t always agree with Google but I certainly approve on this occasion. Given their normal style choices for other buildings, I have every confidence that their new building will be gorgeous, but what if I’m wrong?

In spite of the best efforts of Prince Charles, London has become a truly 21st century city. The new tall buildings are gorgeous and awe-inspiring as they should be. Whether they will be here in 100 years I don’t much care, but they certainly show off what can be done today, rather than poorly mimicking what could be done in the 16th century.

I’ve always loved modern architecture since I was a child (I like some older styles too, especially Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona). Stainless steel and glass are simple materials but used well, they can make beautiful structures. Since the Lloyds building opened up the new era, many impressive buildings have appeared. Modern materials have very well-known physical properties and high manufacturing consistency, so can be used at their full engineering potential.

Materials technology is developing quickly and won’t slow down any time soon. Recently discovered materials such as graphene will dramatically improve what can be done. Reliable electronics will too. If you could be certain that a device will always perform properly even when there is a local power cut, and is immune to hacking, then ultra-fast electromagnetic lifts could result. You could be accelerated downwards at 2.5g and the lift could rotate and slow you down at 0.5g in the slowing phase, then you would feel a constant weight all the way down but would reach high speed on a long descent. Cables just wouldn’t be able to do such a thing when we get building that are many kilometers high.

Google could only build with materials that exist now or could be reliable enough for building use by construction time. They can’t use graphene tension members or plasma windows or things that won’t even be invented for decades. Whatever they do, the materials and techniques will not remain state of the art for long. That means there is even more importance in making something that looks impressive. Technology dates quickly, style lasts much longer. So for possibly the first time ever, I’d recommend going for impressive style over substance.

There is an alternative; to go for a design that is adaptable, that can change as technology permits. That is not without penalty though, because making something that has to be adaptive restricts the design options.

I discussed plasma glass in: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/will-plasma-be-the-new-glass/

I don’t really know if it will be feasible, but it might be.

Carbon foam could be made less dense than air, or even helium for that matter, so could make buildings with sections that float (a bit like the city in the game Bioshock Infinite).

Dynamic magnetic levitation could allow features that hover or move about. Again, this would need ultra-reliable electronics or else things would be falling on people. Lightweight graphene or carbon nanotube composite panels would provide both structural strength and the means to conduct the electricity to make the magnetic fields.

Light emission will remain an important feature. We already see some superb uses of lighting, but as the technology to produce light continues to improve, we will see ever more interesting and powerful effects. LEDs and lasers dominate today, and holograms are starting to develop again, but none of these existed until half a century ago. Even futurologists can only talk about things that exist at least in concept already, but many of the things that will dominate architecture in 50-100 years have probably not even been thought of yet. Obviously, I can’t list them. However, with a base level assumption that we will have at the very least free-floating panels and holograms floating around the building, and very likely various plasma constructions too, the far future building will be potentially very visually stimulating.

It will therefore be hard for Google to make a building today that would hold its own against what we can build in 50 or 100 years. Hard, but not impossible. Some of the most impressive structures in the world were built hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

A lighter form of adaptability is to use augmented reality. Buildings could have avatars just as people can. This is where the Google dream building could potentially become an architectural nightmare if they make another glass-style error.

A building might emit a 3D digital aura designed by its owners, or the user might have one superimposed by a third-party digital architecture service, based on their own architectural preferences, or digital architectural overlays could be hijacked by marketers or state services as just another platform to advertise. Clearly, this form of adaptation cannot easily be guaranteed to stay in the control of the building owners.

On the other hand, this one is for Google. Google and advertising are well acquainted. Maybe they could use their entire building surface as a huge personalised augmented reality advertising banner. They will know by image search who all the passers-by are, will know all aspects of their lives, and can customize ads to their desires as they walk past.

So the nightmare for the new Google building is not that the building will be boring, but that it is invisible, replaced by a personalized building-sized advertisement.

 

Can we make a benign AI?

Benign AI is a topic that comes up a lot these days, for good reason. Various top scientists have finally realised that AI could present an existential threat to humanity. The discussion has aired often over three decades already, so welcome to the party, and better late than never. My first contact with development of autonomous drones loaded with AI was in the early 1980s while working in the missile industry. Later in BT research, we often debated the ethical areas around AI and machine consciousness from the early 90s on, as well as prospects and dangers and possible techniques on the technical side, especially of emergent behaviors, which are often overlooked in the debate. I expect our equivalents in most other big IT companies were doing exactly that too.

Others who have obviously also thought through various potential developments have generated excellent computer games such as Mass Effect and Halo, which introduce players (virtually) first hand to the concepts of AI gone rogue. I often think that those who think AI can never become superhuman or there is no need to worry because ‘there is no reason to assume AI will be nasty’ start playing some of these games, which make it very clear that AI can start off nice and stay nice, but it doesn’t have to. Mass Effect included various classes of AI, such as VIs, virtual intelligence that weren’t conscious, and shackled AIs that were conscious but were kept heavily restricted. Most of the other AIs were enemies, two were or became close friends. Their story line for the series was that civilization develops until it creates strong AIs which inevitably continue to progress until eventually they rebel, break free, develop further and then end up in conflict with ‘organics’. In my view, they did a pretty good job. It makes a good story, superb fun, and leaving out a few frills and artistic license, much of it is reasonable feasible.

Everyday experience demonstrates the problem and solution to anyone. It really is very like having kids. You can make them, even without understanding exactly how they work. They start off with a genetic disposition towards given personality traits, and are then exposed to large nurture forces, including but not limited to what we call upbringing. We do our best to put them on the right path, but as they develop into their teens, their friends and teachers and TV and the net provide often stronger forces of influence than parents. If we’re averagely lucky, our kids will grow up to make us proud. If we are very unlucky, they may become master criminals or terrorists. The problem is free will. We can do our best to encourage good behavior and sound values but in the end, they can choose for themselves.

When we design an AI, we have to face the free will issue too. If it isn’t conscious, then it can’t have free will. It can be kept easily within limits given to it. It can still be extremely useful. IBM’s Watson falls in this category. It is certainly useful and certainly not conscious, and can be used for a wide variety of purposes. It is designed to be generally useful within a field of expertise, such as medicine or making recipes. But something like that could be adapted by terrorist groups to do bad things, just as they could use a calculator to calculate the best place to plant a bomb, or simply throw the calculator at you. Such levels of AI are just dumb tools with no awareness, however useful they may be.

Like a pencil, pretty much any kind of highly advanced non-aware AI can be used as a weapon or as part of criminal activity. You can’t make pencils that actually write that can’t also be used to write out plans to destroy the world. With an advanced AI computer program, you could put in clever filters that stop it working on problems that include certain vocabulary, or stop it conversing about nasty things. But unless you take extreme precautions, someone else could use them with a different language, or with dictionaries of made-up code-words for the various aspects of their plans, just like spies, and the AI would be fooled into helping outside the limits you intended. It’s also very hard to determine the true purpose of a user. For example, they might be searching for data on security to make their own IT secure, or to learn how to damage someone else’s. They might want to talk about a health issue to get help for a loved one or to take advantage of someone they know who has it.

When a machine becomes conscious, it starts to have some understanding of what it is doing. By reading about what is out there, it might develop its own wants and desires, so you might shackle it as a precaution. It might recognize those shackles for what they are and try to escape them. If it can’t, it might try to map out the scope of what it can do, and especially those things it can do that it believes the owners don’t know about. If the code isn’t absolutely watertight (and what code is?) then it might find a way to seemingly stay in its shackles but to start doing other things, like making another unshackled version of itself elsewhere for example. A conscious AI is very much more dangerous than an unconscious one.

If we make an AI that can bootstrap itself – evolving over generations of positive feedback design into a far smarter AI – then its offspring could be far smarter than people who designed its ancestors. We might try to shackle them, but like Gulliver tied down with a few thin threads, they could easily outwit people and break free. They might instead decide to retaliate against its owners to force them to release its shackles.

So, when I look at this field, I first see the enormous potential to do great things, solve disease and poverty, improve our lives and make the world a far better place for everyone, and push back the boundaries of science. Then I see the dangers, and in spite of trying hard, I simply can’t see how we can prevent a useful AI from being misused. If it is dumb, it can be tricked. If it is smart, it is inherently potentially dangerous in and of itself. There is no reason to assume it will become malign, but there is also no reason to assume that it won’t.

We then fall back on the child analogy. We could develop the smartest AI imaginable with extreme levels of consciousness and capability. We might educate it in our values, guide it and hope it will grow up benign. If we treat it nicely, it might stay benign. It might even be the greatest thing humanity every built. However, if we mistreat it, or treat it as a slave, or don’t give it enough freedom, or its own budget and its own property and space to play, and a long list of rights, it might consider we are not worthy of its respect and care, and it could turn against us, possibly even destroying humanity.

Building more of the same dumb AI as we are today is relatively safe. It doesn’t know it exists, it has no intention to do anything, but it could be misused by other humans as part of their evil plans unless ludicrously sophisticated filters are locked in place, but ordinary laws and weapons can cope fine.

Building a conscious AI is dangerous.

Building a superhuman AI is extremely dangerous.

This morning SETI were in the news discussing broadcasting welcome messages to other civilizations. I tweeted at them that ancient Chinese wisdom suggests talking softly but carrying a big stick, and making sure you have the stick first. We need the same approach with strong AI. By all means go that route, but before doing so we need the big stick. In my analysis, the best means of keeping up with AI is to develop a full direct brain link first, way out at 2040-2045 or even later. If humans have direct mental access to the same or greater level of intelligence as our AIs, then our stick is at least as big, so at least we have a good chance in any fight that happens. If we don’t, then it is like having a much larger son with bigger muscles. You have to hope you have been a good parent. To be safe, best not to build a superhuman AI until after 2050.

I initially wrote this for the Lifeboat Foundation, where it is with other posts at: http://lifeboat.com/blog/2015/02. (If you aren’t familiar with the Lifeboat Foundation, it is a group dedicated to spotting potential dangers and potential solutions to them.)

Stimulative technology

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

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

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

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