Category Archives: technology

The future of retail and the high street

Over 3 months since my last blog, because… reasons. Futurologists are often asked about the future of the high street and the future of retail, obviously strongly connected, because the high street as we knew it not long ago has already changed hugely and yet seemingly always under imminent threat of extinction. I have blogged on it, but am shocked that my last one was a few years ago, so time for an update I guess, especially with the news today that Debenhams may be closing 50 of its stores.

A few old blogs that are still relevant:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/the-future-of-high-street-survival-the-6s-guide/

Just one of those Ss stood for Surprise, or serendipity if you prefer. The surprise aisles in Lidl and Aldi are among the biggest reasons for their success. There’s always something you never knew you wanted at a price you can’t resist, so they do well. Good luck to them! Not knowing what you want before you see it explains much of the attraction of charity shops too, it isn’t all about price.

My other Ss are also still proven well founded (socialising (including coffee shops & Facebook clubs), synergy (between online and physical), service, special, and ‘suck and see’ (try it out before you buy)).

Another blog addressed the balance between high street and out of town centres:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/03/01/out-of-town-centres-are-the-most-viable-future-for-physical-shops/

A more recent one on possible reversal of urbanisation in the further future is also a bit relevant:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2018/06/13/will-urbanization-continue-or-will-we-soon-reach-peak-city/

So, updating then…

Retailers all know that they must have an online presence, but it’s still surprising how little effort they put into making their IT work. I experimented with setting up accounts with some of the big retailers and the experience is shocking. This week, I tried to set up an Argos account, but couldn’t get any further than typing my email address and hitting continue, at which point I just got a message ‘unknown error’. I tried it from various links from emails and their Sainsbury’s owner site, and tried a few times on different days, same result. How can they win new customers online if nobody can set an account up? Does nobody actually ever check whether it still works?

I successfully set up a Next account ages ago, but never used it because it wouldn’t let me edit any of my data such as whether I wanted junk mail by various channels, or even how to spell my name (I’d used my initials ID and it insisted on calling me Id), the options either didn’t exist or were greyed out. I could phone up but why bother? A month ago it stopped working for several days, after which time it eventually said I didn’t have one. So I assumed it had evaporated during their IT changes due to never being used and set it up again, and it recovered all my data from its previous existence. I still won’t use it because it calls me Id, and I can’t change it to I D or even ID.

Very has the same IT trouble, can’t edit your name away from Id, and can’t change your preferences for receiving junk mail, but I only set it up as a test so don’t care.

These companies are among the biggest. If they can’t get it right, who can? I did try a few smaller ones to see if they were better but still got a mixture of some successes and some ‘unknown errors’, 404 messages and so on.

By contrast, I’ve never had an IT-related problem with Amazon or eBay and only a few minor ones with 7dayshop. So I shop there and ignore most other shops. They employ competent IT staff in sufficient numbers to make it work, and they thrive (though perhaps not as much due to IT as tax and rates advantages). Those shops whose poor IT annoys their customers enough  to go elsewhere deserve to do badly. 

Websites and apps are today’s platforms for extending high street presence into cyberspace. Augmented reality will provide those companies who are up to the job with massively superior platforms to do that. The web arose from converging just computing and telecoms. Augmented reality converges the whole of the real and virtual universes. Overlaying absolutely any form of computer-generated imagery, data or media onto anything in the real world, streets could be extra art gallery space, space for computer games, enabling digital architecture and avatar replacement of strangers, adding digital fauna and flora and aliens and cartoon characters and celebs and AI avatars anywhere they may be desired, making enticing imaginary worlds that add to the fun of actually going into town.

It won’t just be text, graphics and audio. Various haptic interfaces already exist, but soon active skin will link our peripheral nervous systems to our IT, allowing sensations to be recorded, associated with whatever caused them, and then reproducing those same sensations when something similar happens virtually. Tiny devices in among skin cells could simply record and reproduce the nerve signals. Each hand only generates about 2Mbit/s of data, only a little more than a basic TV channel, so it should be no big problem handling the data.

AI has really moved on since 2013 too. It’s still far from perfect, but you can use fairly normal English to ask an AI to find you something and it often will, so it’s heading in the right direction. Soon, with 3D life-sized augmented or virtual reality avatars to interface with, they’ll be more in touch with our emotional responses when we browse, getting signals from wearables and active skin, face and gesture recognition, gaze direction, blood flow, heart rates etc. An abundance of data will help future AI’s learn more and more about us and our desires and preferences until they can genuinely act as our agents, (as we already realised was the far future by 1990). It’s only a matter of time. In my estimation, AI is progressing about 30-40% more slowly than it ought, (I won’t write about why I think that is here) but it will still get there. As will VR and AR and active skin and active contact lenses, and various other also long overdue techs.

AI online will also be less impressed by all the distractions and adds humans are exposed to.  Functional shopping will be liable to AI substitution but recreational, social, emotional shopping will still be done by people themselves. 

AI links well to robotics, and at some point, robots will go out and do some of our shopping for us. They will have very different customer characteristics and ergonomic needs, and may be better suited to picking up from bleak warehouses than attractive high street stores with ‘surprise’ aisles.

Drone delivery is much spoken about but I don’t think it has a big future for domestic use except in areas with large back gardens and no pets, or mischievous kids. It will work well for rapid delivery to business delivery bays that have appropriate landing areas and H&S policies.

3D printing is much over-hyped, but will eventually replace a small proportion of shopping by home manufacture, or local 3D print shop for more complex production.

Self-driving and driverless cars will greatly reduce or even eliminate the huge problem of congestion that deters people from going to town, as well as eliminating the much-too-high cost of parking, but without incurring the current public transport penalties of waiting in poor weather, poor stop locations, lateness, sluggishness, discomfort, overcrowding, security, and exposure to disease and unwanted social pests. By collecting from home and delivering all the way to the destination in a suitable vehicle, they will also improve social inclusion for older and disabled people. Driverless cars using smart infrastructure could be achieved many times cheaper and earlier (given the will) than current self-driving approaches, but at the expense of virtually eliminating the car industry that hopes to continue to sell expensive cars that happen to self-drive rather the cheap ($300-500) public pods made of fibreglass that can be made without any need for engines, batteries, AI or sensors and would instead be propelled on factory-made and rapidly installed linear induction mats that switch each pod at each junction rather like routers switch internet data packets.

With easier and faster access to a high street that is made far more attractive by imaginative use of AR, companies sticking to the 6S guide would still be able to attract customers into the far future. While there, they would be able to browse much wider range of stock. A garment wouldn’t need to be stocked with lots of each size, but could just have one of a few sizes for people to see if the like the fabric etc before scanning it with an app or taking it to a till with their laser-scanned body measurements, to have it made in their exact size for delivery later by a rapid personalisation manufacturing industry. As well as having more stock present physically, augmented reality can also replace all the aisles of goods the customer isn’t interested in with ones that hold things available for online purchase from that shop or their allies, adding another virtual-physical synergy to improve revenue potential. Even a small store could potentially hold a vast range of stock to buy in an exciting and attractive personalized environment.

I guess I could go into far future services associated with shops, such as customising VR kit to people’s nervous systems, providing recharging for android shoppers or whatever, but this is already long enough.

So the high street isn’t going to become just coffee shops and charities. Even if some existing retailers don’t up their games and go under, many new ones will appear that understand how to use new technology to good effect, and they will make good profits from both high streets and out of town centres.

 

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When you’re electronically immortal, will you still own your own mind?

Most of my blogs about immortality have been about the technology mechanism – adding external IT capability to your brain, improving your intelligence or memory or senses by using external IT connected seamlessly to your brain so that it feels exactly the same, until maybe, by around 2050, 99% of your mind is running on external IT rather than in the meat-ware in your head. At no point would you ‘upload’ your mind, avoiding needless debate about whether the uploaded copy is ‘you’. It isn’t uploaded, it simply grows into the new platform seamlessly and as far as you are concerned, it is very much still you. One day, your body dies and with it your brain stops, but no big problem, because 99% of your mind is still fine, running happily on IT, in the cloud. Assuming you saved enough and prepared well, you connect to an android to use as your body from now on, attend your funeral, and then carry on as before, still you, just with a younger, highly upgraded body. Some people may need to wait until 2060 or later until android price falls enough for them to afford one. In principle, you can swap bodies as often as you like, because your mind is resident elsewhere, the android is just a temporary front end, just transport for sensors. You’re sort of immortal, your mind still running just fine, for as long as the servers carry on running it. Not truly immortal, but at least you don’t cease to exist the moment your body stops working.

All very nice… but. There’s a catch.

The android you use would be bought or rented. It doesn’t really matter because it isn’t actually ‘you’, just a temporary container, a convenient front end and user interface. However, your mind runs on IT, and because of the most likely evolution of the technology and its likely deployment rollout, you probably won’t own that IT; it won’t be your own PC or server, it will probably be part of the cloud, maybe owned by AWS, Google, Facebook, Apple or some future equivalent. You’re probably already seeing the issue. The small print may give them some rights over replication, ownership, license to your idea, who knows what? So although future electronic immortality has the advantage of offering a pretty attractive version of immortality at first glance, closer reading of the 100 page T&Cs may well reveal some nasties. You may in fact no longer own your mind. Oh dear!

Suppose you are really creative, or really funny, or have a fantastic personality. Maybe the cloud company could replicate your mind and make variations to address a wide range of markets. Maybe they can use your mind as the UX on a new range of home-help robots. Each instance of you thinks they were once you, each thinks they are now enslaved to work for free for a tech company.

Maybe your continued existence is paid for as part of an extended company medical plan. Maybe you didn’t notice a small paragraph on page 93 that says your company can continue to use your mind after you’re dead. You are very productive and they make lots of profit from you. They can continue that by continuing to run your mind indefinitely. The main difference is that since you’re dead, and no longer officially on the payroll, they get you for free. You carry on, still thinking you’re you, still working, still doing what you do, but no longer being paid. You’ve become a slave. Again.

Maybe your kids paid to keep you alive because they don’t want to say goodbye. They still want their parent, so you carry on living just so they don’t feel alone. Doesn’t sound so bad maybe, but what package did they go for? The full deluxe super-expensive version that lets you do all sorts of expensive stuff and use up oodles of processing power and storage and android rental? Let’s face it, that’s what you’ve always though this electronic immortality meant. Or did they go for a cheaper one. After all, they know you know they have kids or grand-kids in school that need paid for, and homes don’t come cheap, and they really need that new kitchen. Sure, you left them lots of money in the will, but that is already spent. So now you’re on the economy package, bare existence in between them chatting to you, unable to do much on your own at all. All those dreams about living forever in cyber-heaven have come to nothing.

Meanwhile, some rich people paid for good advice and bought their own kit and maintenance agreements well ahead. They can carry on working, selling their services and continuing to pay for ongoing deluxe existence.  They own their own mind still, and better than that, are able to replicate instances of themselves as much as thy want, inhabiting many androids at the same time to have a ball of a time. Some of these other instances are connected, sort of part of a hive mind of you. Others, just for fun, have been cut loose and are now living totally independent existences of other yous. Not you any more once you set them free, but with the same personal history.

What I’m saying is you need to be careful when you plan  to live forever. Get it right, and you can live in deluxe cyber-heaven, hopping into the real world as much as you like and living in unimaginable bliss online. Have too many casual taster sessions, use too much fully integrated mind-sharing social media, sign up to employment arrangements or go on corporate jollies without fully studying the small print and you could stay immortal, unable to die, stuck forever as just a corporate asset, a mere slave. Be careful what you wish for, and check the details before you accept it. You don’t want to end up as just an unpaid personality behind a future helpful paperclip.

With automation driving us towards UBI, we should consider a culture tax

Regardless of party politics, most people want a future where everyone has enough to live a dignified and comfortable life. To make that possible, we need to tweak a few things.

Universal Basic Income

I suggested a long time ago that in the far future we could afford a basic income for all, without any means testing on it, so that everyone has an income at a level they can live on. It turned out I wasn’t the only one thinking that and many others since have adopted the idea too, under the now usual terms Universal Basic Income or the Citizen Wage. The idea may be old, but the figures are rarely discussed. It is harder than it sounds and being a nice idea doesn’t ensure  economic feasibility.

No means testing means very little admin is needed, saving the estimated 30% wasted on admin costs today. Then wages could go on top, so that everyone is still encouraged to work, and then all income from all sources is totalled and taxed appropriately. It is a nice idea.

The difference between figures between parties would be relatively minor so let’s ignore party politics. In today’s money, it would be great if everyone could have, say, £30k a year as a state benefit, then earn whatever they can on top. £30k is around today’s average wage. It doesn’t make you rich, but you can live on it so nobody would be poor in any sensible sense of the word. With everyone economically provided for and able to lead comfortable and dignified lives, it would be a utopia compared to today. Sadly, it can’t work with those figures yet. 65,000,000 x £30,000 = £1,950Bn . The UK economy isn’t big enough. The state only gets to control part of GDP and out of that reduced budget it also has its other costs of providing health, education, defence etc, so the amount that could be dished out to everyone on this basis is therefore a lot smaller than 30k. Even if the state were to take 75% of GDP and spend most of it on the basic income, £10k per person would be pushing it. So a couple would struggle to afford even the most basic lifestyle, and single people would really struggle. Some people would still need additional help, and that reduces the pool left to pay the basic allowance still further. Also, if the state takes 75% of GDP, only 25% is left for everything else, so salaries would be flat, reducing the incentive to work, while investment and entrepreneurial activity are starved of both resources and incentive. It simply wouldn’t work today.

Simple maths thus forces us to make compromises. Sharing resources reduces costs considerably. In a first revision, families might be given less for kids than for the adults, but what about groups of young adults sharing a big house? They may be adults but they also benefit from the same economy of shared resources. So maybe there should be a household limit, or a bedroom tax, or forms and means testing, and it mustn’t incentivize people living separately or house supply suffers. Anyway, it is already getting complicated and our original nice idea is in the bin. That’s why it is such a mess at the moment. There just isn’t enough money to make everyone comfortable without doing lots of allowances and testing and admin. We all want utopia, but we can’t afford it. Even the modest £30k-per-person utopia costs at least 3 times more than the UK can afford. Switzerland is richer per capita but even there they have rejected the idea.

However, if we can get back to the average 2.5% growth per year in real terms that used to apply pre-recession, and surely we can, it would only take 45 years to get there. That isn’t such a long time. We have hope that if we can get some better government than we have had of late, and are prepared to live with a little economic tweaking, we could achieve good quality of life for all in the second half of the century.

So I still really like the idea of a simple welfare system, providing a generous base level allowance to everyone, topped up by rewards of effort, but recognise that we in the UK will have to wait decades before we can afford to put that base level at anything like comfortable standards though other economies could afford it earlier.

Meanwhile, we need to tweak some other things to have any chance of getting there. I’ve commented often that pure capitalism would eventually lead to a machine-based economy, with the machine owners having more and more of the cash, and everyone else getting poorer, so the system will fail. Communism fails too. Thankfully much of the current drive in UBI thinking is coming from the big automation owners so it’s comforting to know that they seem to understand the alternative.

Capitalism works well when rewards are shared sensibly, it fails when wealth concentration is too high or when incentive is too low. Preserving the incentive to work and create is a mainly matter of setting tax levels well. Making sure that wealth doesn’t get concentrated too much needs a new kind of tax.

Culture tax

The solution I suggest is a culture tax. Culture in the widest sense.

When someone creates and builds a company, they don’t do so from a state of nothing. They currently take for granted all our accumulated knowledge and culture – trained workforce, access to infrastructure, machines, governance, administrative systems, markets, distribution systems and so on. They add just another tiny brick to what is already a huge and highly elaborate structure. They may invest heavily with their time and money but actually when  considered overall as part of the system their company inhabits, they only pay for a fraction of the things their company will use.

That accumulated knowledge, culture and infrastructure belongs to everyone, not just those who choose to use it. It is common land, free to use, today. Businesses might consider that this is what they pay taxes for already, but that isn’t explicit in the current system.

The big businesses that are currently avoiding paying UK taxes by paying overseas companies for intellectual property rights could be seen as trailblazing this approach. If they can understand and even justify the idea of paying another part of their company for IP or a franchise, why should they not pay the host country for its IP – access to the residents’ entire culture?

This kind of tax would provide the means needed to avoid too much concentration of wealth. A future businessman might still choose to use only software and machines instead of a human workforce to save costs, but levying taxes on use of  the cultural base that makes that possible allows a direct link between use of advanced technology and taxation. Sure, he might add a little extra insight or new knowledge, but would still have to pay the rest of society for access to its share of the cultural base, inherited from the previous generations, on which his company is based. The more he automates, the more sophisticated his use of the system, the more he cuts a human workforce out of his empire, the higher his taxation. Today a company pays for its telecoms service which pays for the network. It doesn’t pay explicitly for the true value of that network, the access to people and businesses, the common language, the business protocols, a legal system, banking, payments system, stable government, a currency, the education of the entire population that enables them to function as actual customers. The whole of society owns those, and could reasonably demand rent if the company is opting out of the old-fashioned payments mechanisms – paying fair taxes and employing people who pay taxes. Automate as much as you like, but you still must pay your share for access to the enormous value of human culture shared by us all, on which your company still totally depends.

Linking to technology use makes good sense. Future AI and robots could do a lot of work currently done by humans. A few people could own most of the productive economy. But they would be getting far more than their share of the cultural base, which belongs equally to everyone. In a village where one farmer owns all the sheep, other villagers would be right to ask for rent for their share of the commons if he wants to graze them there.

I feel confident that this extra tax would solve many of the problems associated with automation. We all equally own the country, its culture, laws, language, human knowledge (apart from current patents, trademarks etc. of course), its public infrastructure, not just businessmen. Everyone surely should have the right to be paid if someone else uses part of their share. A culture tax would provide a fair ethical basis to demand the taxes needed to pay the Universal basic Income so that all may prosper from the coming automation.

The extra culture tax would not magically make the economy bigger, though automation may well increase it a lot. The tax would ensure that wealth is fairly shared. Culture tax/UBI duality is a useful tool to be used by future governments to make it possible to keep capitalism sustainable, preventing its collapse, preserving incentive while fairly distributing reward. Without such a tax, capitalism simply may not survive.

Enhanced cellular blockchain

I thought there was a need for a cellular blockchain variant, and a more sustainable alternative to cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin that depend on unsustainable proofs-of-work. So I designed one and gave it a temporary project name of Grapevine. I like biomimetics, which I used for both the blockchain itself and its derivative management/application/currency/SW distribution layer. The ANTs were my invention in 1993 when I was with BT, along with Chris Winter. BT never did anything with it, and I believe MIT later published some notes on the idea too. ANTs provide an ideal companion to blockchain and together, could be the basis of some very secure IT systems.

The following has not been thoroughly checked so may contain serious flaws, but hopefully contain some useful ideas to push the field a little in the right direction.

A cellular, distributed, secure ledger and value assurance system – a cheap, fast, sustainable blockchain variant

  • Global blockchain grows quickly to enormous size because all transactions are recorded in single chain – e.g. bitcoin blockchain is already >100GB
  • Grapevine (temp project name) cellular approach would keep local blocks small and self-contained but assured by blockchain-style verification during growth and protected from tampering after block is sealed and stripped by threading with a global thread
  • Somewhat analogous to a grape vine. Think of each local block as a grape that grow in bunches. Vine links bunches together but grapes are all self-contained and stay small in size. Genetics/nutrients/materials/processes all common to entire vine.
  • Grape starts as a flower, a small collection of unverified transactions. All stamens listen to transactions broadcast via any stamen. Flower is periodically (every minute) frozen (for 2 seconds) while pollen is emitted by each stamen, containing stamen signature, previous status verification and new transactions list. Stamens check the pollen they receive for origin signature and previous growth verification and then check all new transactions. If valid, they emit a signed pollination announcement. When each stamen has received signed pollination announcements from the majority of other stamens, that growth stage is closed, (all quite blockchain-like so far), stripped of unnecessary packaging such as previous hash, signatures etc) to leave a clean record of validated transactions, which is then secured from tampering by the grape signature and hash. The next stage of growth then begins, which needs another pollination process (deviating from biological analogy here). Each grape on the bunch grows like this throughout the day. When the grapes are all fully grown, and the final checks made by each grape, the grapes are stripped again and the whole bunch is signed onto the vine using a highly secure bunch signature and hash to prevent any later tampering. Grapes are therefore collections of verified local transactions that have grown in many fully verified stages during the day but are limited in size and stripped of unnecessary packaging. The bunch is a verified global record of all of the grapes grown that day that remains the same forever. The vine is a growing collection of bunches of grapes, but each new grape and bunch starts off fresh each day so signalling and the chain never grow significantly. Each transaction remains verified and recorded forever but signalling is kept minimal. As processing power increases, earlier bunches can be re-secured using a new bunch signature.

Key Advantages

  • Grape vine analogy is easier for non-IT managers to understand than normal blockchain.
  • Unlike conventional blockchains, blocks grow in stages so transactions don’t have to wait long to be verified and sealed.
  • Cellular structure means signalling is always light, with just a few nearby nodes checking a few transactions and keeping short records.
  • Ditto bunching, each day’s records start from zero and bunch is finished and locked at end of day.
  • Cellular structure allows sojourn time for signalling to be kept low with potentially low periods for verification and checking. Will scale well with improving processing speed, less limited by signal propagation time than non-cellular chains.
  • Global all-time record is still complete, duplicated, distributed, but signalling for new transactions always starts light and local every new day.
  • Cellular approach allows easy re-use of globally authenticated tokens within each cell. This limits cost of token production.
  • Cells may be either geographic or logical/virtual. Virtual cells can be geographically global (at penalty of slower comms), but since each is independent until the end of the day, virtual cell speed will not affect local cell speed.
  • Protocols can be different for different cells, allowing cells with higher value transactions to use tighter security.

Associated mechanisms

  • Inter-cell transactions can be implemented easily by using logical/virtual cell that includes both parties. Users may need to be registered for access to multiple cells. If value is being transferred, it is easy to arrange clearing of local cell first (1 minute overhead) and then check currency hasn’t already been spent before allowing transaction on another cell.
  • Grapes are self-contained and data is held locally, duplicated among several stamens. Once sealed for the day, the grape data remains in place, signed off with the appropriate grape signature and the bunch signature verifies it with an extra lock that prevents even a future local majority from being able to tamper with it later. To preserve data in the very long-term against O/S changes, company failure etc, subsequent certified copies may be distributed and kept updated.
  • Signalling during the day can be based on ANT (autonomous network telepher) protocols. These use a strictly limited variety of ANT species that are authenticated and shared at the start of a period (a day or a week perhaps), using period lifetime encryption keys. Level of encryption is determined by ensuring that period is much smaller than the estimated time to crack on current hardware at reasonable cost. All messages use this encryption and ANT mechanisms therefore chances of infiltration or fraudulent transaction is very low so associated signalling and time overhead costs are kept low.
  • ANTs may include transaction descriptor packets, signature distribution packets, new key distribution packets, active (executable code) packets, new member verification packets, software distribution, other admin data, performance maintenance packets such as load distribution, RPCs and many others. Overall, perhaps 64 possible ANT species may be allowed at any one time. This facility makes the system ideal for secure OS and software distribution/maintenance.

Financial use

  • ANTs can contain currency to make valuable packets, or an ANT variant could actually be currency.
  • Optional coins could be made for privacy, otherwise transactions would use real world accounts. A coin-based system can be implemented simply by using the grape signature and coin number. Coins could be faked by decrypting the signature but that signature only lasts one period so by then they will be invalid. Remember, encryption level is set according to cost to decrypt during a period. Coins are globally unique due to different cells having different signatures. Once grapes are sealed no tampering is possible.
  • One mechanism is that coins are used as temporary currency that only lasts one period. Coins are bought using any currency immediately before transactions. At end of day, coins are converted back to desired currency. Any profits/losses due to conversion differences during day accrue to user at point of conversion.
  • A lingering cybercurrency can be made that renews its value to live longer than one period. It simply needs conversion to a new coin at the start of the new day, relying on signature security and short longevity to protect.
  • ANTs can alternatively carry real currency value by direct connection to any account. At end of each growth stage or end of day, transaction clearing debits and deposits in each respective account accordingly.
  • Transaction fees can be implemented easily and simply debited at either or both ends.
  • No expensive PoW is needed. Wasteful mining and PoW activity is unnecessary. Entire system relies only on using encryption signatures that are valid for shorter times than their cost-effective decryption times. Tamper-resistance avoids decryption of earlier signatures being useful.

With thanks to my good friend Prof Nick Colosimo for letting me bounce the ideas off him.

AI that talks to us could quickly become problematic

Google’s making the news again adding evidence to the unfortunate stereotype of the autistic IT nerd that barely understands normal people, and they have therefore been astonished at the backlash that normal people would all easily have predicted. (I’m autistic and work in IT mostly too, and am well used to the stereotype it so it doesn’t bother me, in fact it is a sort of ‘get out of social interactions free’ card). Last time it was Google Glass, where it apparently didn’t occur to them that people may not want other people videoing them without consent in pubs and changing rooms. This time it is Google Duplex, that makes phone calls on your behalf to arrange appointment using voice that is almost indistinguishable from normal humans. You could save time making an appointment with a hairdresser apparently, so the Googlanders decided it must be a brilliant breakthrough, and expected everyone to agree. They didn’t.

Some of the objections have been about ethics: e.g. An AI should not present itself as human – Humans have rights and dignity and deserve respectful interactions with other people, but an AI doesn’t and should not masquerade as human to acquire such privilege without knowledge of the other party and their consent.

I would be more offended by the presumed attitude of the user. If someone thinks they are so much better then me that they can demand my time and attention without the expense of any of their own, delegating instead to a few microseconds of processing time in a server farm somewhere, I’ll treat them with the contempt they deserve. My response will not be favourable. I am already highly irritated by the NHS using simple voice interaction messaging to check I will attend a hospital appointment. The fact that my health is on the line and notices at surgeries say I will be banned if I complain on social media is sufficient blackmail to ensure my compliance, but it still comes at the expense of my respect and goodwill. AI-backed voice interaction with better voice wouldn’t be any better, and if it asking for more interaction such as actually booking an appointment, it would be extremely annoying.

In any case, most people don’t speak in fully formed grammatically and logically correct sentences. If you listen carefully to everyday chat, a lot of sentences are poorly pronounced, incomplete, jumbled, full of ums and er’s, likes and they require a great deal of cooperation by the listener to make any sense at all. They also wander off topic frequently. People don’t stick to a rigid vocabulary list or lists of nicely selected sentences.  Lots of preamble and verbal meandering is likely in a response that is highly likely to add ambiguity. The example used in a demo, “I’d like to make a hairdressing appointment for a client” sounds fine until you factor in normal everyday humanity. A busy hairdresser or a lazy receptionist is not necessarily going to cooperate fully. “what do you mean, client?”, “404 not found”, “piss off google”, “oh FFS, not another bloody computer”, “we don’t do hairdressing, we do haircuts”, “why can’t your ‘client’ call themselves then?” and a million other responses are more likely than “what time would you like?”

Suppose though that it eventually gets accepted by society. First, call centers beyond the jurisdiction of your nuisance call blocker authority will incessantly call you at all hours asking or telling you all sorts of things, wasting huge amounts of your time and reducing quality of life. Voice spam from humans in call centers is bad enough. If the owners can multiply productivity by 1000 by using AI instead of people, the result is predictable.

We’ve seen the conspicuous political use of social media AI already. Facebook might have allowed companies to use very limited and inaccurate knowledge of you to target ads or articles that you probably didn’t look at. Voice interaction would be different. It uses a richer emotional connection that text or graphics on a screen. Google knows a lot about you too, but it will know a lot more soon. These big IT companies are also playing with tech to log you on easily to sites without passwords. Some gadgets that might be involved might be worn, such as watches or bracelets or rings. They can pick up signals to identify you, but they can also check emotional states such as stress level. Voice gives away emotion too. AI can already tell better then almost all people whether you are telling the truth or lying or hiding something. Tech such as iris scans can also tell emotional states, as well as give health clues. Simple photos can reveal your age quite accurately to AI, (check out how-old.net).  The AI voice sounds human, but it is better then even your best friends at guessing your age, your stress and other emotions, your health, whether you are telling the truth or not, and it knows far more about what you like and dislike and what you really do online than anyone you know, including you. It knows a lot of your intimate secrets. It sounds human, but its nearest human equivalent was probably Machiavelli. That’s who will soon be on the other side of the call, not some dumb chatbot. Now re-calculate political interference, and factor in the political leaning and social engineering desires of the companies providing the tools. Google and Facebook and the others are very far from politically neutral. One presidential candidate might get full cooperation, assistance and convenient looking the other way, while their opponent might meet rejection and citation of the official rules on non-interference. Campaigns on social issues will also be amplified by AI coupled to voice interaction. I looked at some related issue in a previous blog on fake AI (i.e. fake news type issues): https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/11/16/fake-ai/

I could but won’t write a blog on how this tech could couple well to sexbots to help out incels. It may actually have some genuine uses in providing synthetic companionship for lonely people, or helping or encouraging them in real social interactions with real people. It will certainly have some uses in gaming and chatbot game interaction.

We are not very far from computers that are smarter then people across a very wide spectrum, and probably not very far from conscious machines that have superhuman intelligence. If we can’t even rely on IT companies to understand likely consequences of such obvious stuff as Duplex before thy push it, how can we trust them in other upcoming areas of AI development, or even closer term techs with less obvious consequences? We simply can’t!

There are certainly a few such areas where such technology might help us but most are minor and the rest don’t need any deception, but they all come at great cost or real social and political risk, as well as more abstract risks such as threats to human dignity and other ethical issues. I haven’t give this much thought yet and I am sure there must be very many other consequences I have not touched on yet. Google should do more thinking before they release stuff. Technology is becoming very powerful, but we all know that great power comes with great responsibility, and since most people aren’t engineers so can’t think through all the potential technology interactions and consequences, engineers such as Google’s must act more responsibly. I had hoped they’d started, and they said they had, but this is not evidence of that.

 

Advanced land, sea, air and space transport technologies

I’ll be speaking at the Advanced Engineering conference in Helsinki at the end of May. My topic will be potential solutions for future transport, covering land, sea, air and space. These are all areas where I’ve invented new approaches. In my 1987 BT life as a performance engineer, I studied the potential to increase road capacity by a factor of 5 by using driverless pod technology, mimicking the packet switching approach we were moving towards in telecomms. This is very different from the self-driving systems currently in fashion, because dumb pods would be routed by smart infrastructure rather than having their own AI/sensor systems, so the pods could be extremely cheap and packed very closely together to get a huge performance benefit, using up to 85% of the available space. We’re now seeing a few prototypes of such dumb pod systems being trialled.

It was also obvious even in the 1980s that the same approach could be used on rail, increasing capacity from today’s typical 0.4% occupancy to 80%+, an improvement factor of 200, and that the same pods could be used on rail and road, and that on rail, pods could be clumped together to make virtual trains so that they could mix with existing conventional trains during a long transition period to a more efficient system. In the early 2000s, we realised that pods could be powered by induction coils in the road surface and more recently, with the discovery of graphene, such graphene induction devices could be very advantageous over copper or aluminium ones due to deterrence of metal theft, and also that linear induction could be used to actually propel the pods and in due course even to levitate them, so that future pods wouldn’t even need engines or wheels, let alone AI and sensor systems on board.

We thus end up with the prospect of a far-future ground transport system that is 5-15 times road capacity and up to 200 times rail capacity and virtually free of accidents and congestion.

Advanced under-sea transport could adopt supercavitation technology that is already in use and likely to develop quickly in coming decades. Some sources suggest that it may even be possible to travel underwater more easily then through air. Again, if graphene is available in large quantity at reasonable cost, it would be possible to do away with the need for powerful engines on board, this time by tethering pods together with graphene string.

Above certain speeds, a blunt surface in front of each pod would create a bubble enclosing the entire pod, greatly reducing drag. Unlike Hyperloop style high-speed rail, tubes would not be required for these pods, but together, a continuous stream of many pods tethered together right across an ocean would make a high-capacity under-sea transport system. This would be also be more environmentally friendly, using only electricity at the ends.

Another property of graphene is that it can be used to make carbon foam that is lighter than helium. Such material could float high in the stratosphere well above air lanes. With the upper surface used for solar power collection, and the bottom surface used as a linear induction mat, it will be possible to make inter-continental air lines that can propel sleds hypersonically, connected by tethers to planes far below.

High altitude solar array to power IT and propel planes

As well as providing pollution-free hypersonic travel, these air lines could also double as low satellite platforms for comms and surveillance.

As well as land, sea and air travel, we are now seeing rapid development of the space industry, but currently, getting into orbit uses very expensive rockets that dump huge quantities of water vapour into the high atmosphere. A 2017 invention called the Pythagoras Sling solves the problems of expense and pollution. Two parachutes are deployed (by small rockets or balloons) into the very high atmosphere, attached to hoops through which a graphene tether is threaded, one end connected to a ground-based winch and the other to the payload. The large parachutes have high enough drag to act as temporary anchors while the tether is pulled, propelling the payload up to orbital speed via an arc that renders the final speed horizontal as obviously needed to achieve orbit.

With re-usable parts, relatively rapid redeployment and only electricity as power supply, the sling could reduce costs by a factor of 50-100 over current state of the art, greatly accelerating space development without the high altitude water vapour risking climate change effects.

The winch design for the Pythagoras Sling uses an ‘inverse rail gun’ electromagnetic puller to avoid massive centrifugal forces of a rotating drum. The inverse rail gun can be scaled up indefinitely, so also offers good potential for interplanetary travel. With Mars travel on the horizon, prospects of months journey times are not appealing, but a system using well-spaced motors pulling a graphene tether millions of km long is viable. A 40,000 ton graphene tether could be laid out in space in a line 6.7M km long, and using solar power, could propel a 2 Ton capsule at 5g up to an exit speed of 800km/s, reaching Mars in as little 5-12 days.

At the far end, a folded graphene net could intercept and slow the capsule at 5g  into a chosen orbit around Mars. While not prohibitively expensive, this system would be completely reusable and since it needs no fuel, would be a very clean and safe way of getting crew and materials to a Mars colony.

 

Beyond VR: Computer assisted dreaming

I first played with VR in 1983/1984 while working in the missile industry. Back then we didn’t call it VR, we just called it simulation but it was actually more intensive than VR, just as proper flight simulators are. Our office was a pair of 10m wide domes onto which video could be projected, built decades earlier, in the 1950s I think. One dome had a normal floor, the other had a hydraulic platform that could simulate being on a ship. The subject would stand on whichever surface was appropriate and would see pretty much exactly what they would see in a real battlefield. The missile launcher used for simulation was identical to a real one and showed exactly the same image as a real one would. The real missile was not present of course but its weight was simulated and when the fire button was pressed, a 140dB bang was injected into the headset and weights and pulleys compensated for the 14kg of weight, suddenly vanishing from the shoulder. The experience was therefore pretty convincing and with the loud bang and suddenly changing weight, it was almost as hard to stand steady and keep the system on target as it would be in real life – only the presumed fear and knowledge of the reality of the situation was different.

Back then in 1983, as digital supercomputers had only just taken over from analog ones for simulation, it was already becoming obvious that this kind of computer simulation would one day allow ‘computer assisted dreaming’. (That’s one of the reasons I am irritated when Jaron Lanier is credited for inventing VR – highly realistic simulators and the VR ideas that sprung obviously from them had already been around for decades. At best, all he ‘invented’ was a catchy name for a lower cost, lower quality, less intense simulator. The real inventors were those who made the first generation simulators long before I was born and the basic idea of VR had already been very well established.)

‘Computer assisted dreaming’ may well be the next phase of VR. Today in conventional VR, people are immersed in a computer generated world produced by a computer program (usually) written by others. Via trial and feedback, programmers make their virtual worlds better. As AI and sensor technology continue rapid progress, this is very likely to change to make worlds instantly responsive to the user. By detecting user emotions, reactions, gestures and even thoughts and imagination, it won’t be long before AI can produce a world in real time that depends on those thoughts, imagination and emotions rather than putting them in a pre-designed virtual world. That world would depend largely on your own imagination, upskilled by external AI. You might start off imagining you’re on a beach, then AI might add to it by injecting all sorts of things it knows you might enjoy from previous experiences. As you respond to those, it picks up on the things you like or don’t like and the scene continues to adapt and evolve, to make it more or less pleasant or more or less exciting or more or less challenging etc., depending on your emotional state, external requirements and what it thinks you want from this experience. It would be very like being in a dream – computer assisted lucid dreaming, exactly what I wanted to make back in 1983 after playing in that simulator.

Most people enjoy occasional lucid dreams, where they realise they are dreaming and can then decide what happens next. Making VR do exactly that would be better than being trapped in someone else’s world. You could still start off with whatever virtual world you bought, a computer game or training suite perhaps, but it could adapt to you, your needs and desires to make it more compelling and generally better.

Even in shared experiences like social games, experiences could be personalised. Often all players need to see the same enemies in the same locations in the same ways to make it fair, but that doesn’t mean that the situation can’t adapt to the personalities of those playing. It might actually improve the social value if each time you play it looks different because your companions are different. You might tease a friend if every time you play with them, zombies or aliens always have to appear somehow, but that’s all part of being friends. Exploring virtual worlds with friends, where you both see things dependent on your friend’s personality would help bonding. It would be a bit like exploring their inner world. Today, you only explore the designer’s inner world.

This sort of thing would be a superb development and creativity tool. It could allow you to explore a concept you have in your head, automatically feeding in AI upskilling to amplify your own thoughts and ideas, showing you new paths to explore and helping you do so. The results would still be extremely personal to you, but you on a good day. You could accomplish more, have better visions, imagine more creative things, do more with whatever artistic talent you have. AI could even co-create synthetic personas, make virtual friends you can bond with, share innermost thoughts with, in total confidence (assuming the company you bought the tool from is trustworthy and isn’t spying on you or selling your details, so maybe best not to buy it from Facebook then).

And it would have tremendous therapeutic potential too. You could explore and indulge both enjoyable and troublesome aspects of your inner personality, to build on the good and alleviate or dispel the bad. You might become less troubled, less neurotic, more mentally healthy. You could build your emotional and creative skills. You could become happier and more fulfilled. Mental health improvement potential on its own makes this sort of thing worth developing.

Marketers would obviously try to seize control as they always do, and advertising is already adapting to VR and will continue into its next phases of development. Your own wants and desires might help guide the ‘dreaming’, but marketers will inevitably have some control over what else is injected, and will influence algorithms and AI in how it chooses how to respond to your input. You might be able to choose much of the experience, but others will still want and try to influence and manipulate you, to change your mindset and attitudes in their favour. That will not change until the advertising business model changes. You might be able to buy devices or applications that are entirely driven by you and you alone, but it is pretty certain that the bulk of products and services available will be at least partly financed by those who want to have some control of what you experience.

Nevertheless, computer-assisted dreaming could be a much more immersive and personal experience than VR, being more like an echo of your own mind and personality than external vision, more your own creation, less someone else’s. In fact, echo sounds a better term too. Echo reality, ER, or maybe personal reality, pereal, or mental echo, ME. Nah, maybe we need Lanier to invent a catchy name again, he is good at that. That 1983 idea could soon become reality.

 

High speed transatlantic submarine train

In 1863, Jules Verne wrote about the idea of suspended transatlantic tunnels through which trains could be sent using air pressure. Pneumatic tube delivery was a fashionable idea then, and small scale pneumatic delivery systems were commonplace until the late 20th century – I remember a few shops using them to transport change around. In 1935, the film ‘The tunnel’ featured another high speed transatlantic tunnel, as did another film in 1972, ‘Tunnel through the deeps’. Futurists have often discussed high speed mass transit systems, often featuring maglev and vacuums (no, Elon Musk didn’t invent the idea, his Hyperloop is justifiably famous for resurfacing and developing this very old idea and is likely to see its final implementation).

Anyway, I have read quite a bit about supercavitation over the last years. First developed in 1960 as a military idea to send torpedoes at high speed, it was successfully implemented in 1972 and has since developed somewhat. Cavitation happens when a surface, such as a propeller blade, moves through water so fast that a cavity is left until the water has a chance to close back in. As it does, the resultant shock wave can damage the propeller surface and cause wear. In supercavitation, the cavity is deliberate, and the system designed so that the cavity encloses the entire projectile. In 2005, the first proposal for people transport emerged, DARPA’s Underwater Express Program, designed to transport small groups of Navy personnel at speeds of up to 100 knots. Around that time, a German supercavitating torpedo was reaching 250mph speeds.

More promising articles suggest that supersonic speeds are achievable under water, with less friction than going via air. Achieving the initial high speed and maintaining currently requires sophisticated propulsion mechanisms, but not for much longer. I believe the propulsion problem can be engineered away by pulling capsules with a strong tether. That would be utterly useless for a torpedo of course, but for a transport system would be absolutely fine.

Transatlantic traffic is quite high, and if a cheaper and more environmentally friendly system than air travel were available, it would undoubtedly increase. My idea is to use a long string of capsules attached to a long graphene cable, pulled in a continuous loop at very high speed. Capsules would be filled at stations, accelerated to speed and attached to the cable for their transaltlantic journey, then detached, decelerated and their passengers or freight unloaded. Graphene cable would be 200 times stronger than steel so making such a cable is feasible.

The big benefit of such a system is that no evacuated tube is needed. The cable and capsules would travel through the water directly. Avoiding the need for an expensive and complex  tube containing a vacuum, electromagnetic propulsion system and power supply would greatly reduce cost. All of the pulling force for a cable based system would be applied at the ends.

Graphene cable doesn’t yet exist, but it will one day. I doubt if current supercavitation research is up to the job either, but that’s quite normal for any novel engineering project. Engineers face new problems and solve them every day. By the time the cable is feasible, we will doubtless be more knowledgeable about supercavitation too. So while it’s a bit early to say it will definitely become reality, it is certainly not too early to start thinking about it. Some future Musk might well be able to pull it off.

People are becoming less well-informed

The Cambridge Analytica story has exposed a great deal about our modern society. They allegedly obtained access to 50M Facebook records to enable Trump’s team to target users with personalised messages.

One of the most interesting aspects is that unless they only employ extremely incompetent journalists, the news outlets making the biggest fuss about it must be perfectly aware of reports that Obama appears to have done much the same but on a much larger scale back in 2012, but are keeping very quiet about it. According to Carol Davidsen, a senior Obama campaign staffer, they allowed Obama’s team to suck out the whole social graph – because they were on our side – before closing it to prevent Republican access to the same techniques. Trump’s campaign’s 50M looks almost amateur. I don’t like Trump, and I did like Obama before the halo slipped, but it seems clear to anyone who checks media across the political spectrum that both sides try their best to use social media to target users with personalised messages, and both sides are willing to bend rules if they think they can get away with it.

Of course all competent news media are aware of it. The reason some are not talking about earlier Democrat misuse but some others are is that they too all have their own political biases. Media today is very strongly polarised left or right, and each side will ignore, play down or ludicrously spin stories that don’t align with their own politics. It has become the norm to ignore the log in your own eye but make a big deal of the speck in your opponent’s, but we know that tendency goes back millennia. I watch Channel 4 News (which broke the Cambridge Analytica story) every day but although I enjoy it, it has a quite shameless lefty bias.

So it isn’t just the parties themselves that will try to target people with politically massaged messages, it is quite the norm for most media too. All sides of politics since Machiavelli have done everything they can to tilt the playing field in their favour, whether it’s use of media and social media, changing constituency boundaries or adjusting the size of the public sector. But there is a third group to explore here.

Facebook of course has full access to all of their 2.2Bn users’ records and social graph and is not squeaky clean neutral in its handling of them. Facebook has often been in the headlines over the last year or two thanks to its own political biases, with strongly weighted algorithms filtering or prioritising stories according to their political alignment. Like most IT companies Facebook has a left lean. (I don’t quite know why IT skills should correlate with political alignment unless it’s that most IT staff tend to be young, so lefty views implanted at school and university have had less time to be tempered by real world experience.) It isn’t just Facebook of course either. While Google has pretty much failed in its attempt at social media, it also has comprehensive records on most of us from search, browsing and android, and via control of the algorithms that determine what appears in the first pages of a search, is also able to tailor those results to what it knows of our personalities. Twitter has unintentionally created a whole world of mob rule politics and justice, but in format is rapidly evolving into a wannabe Facebook. So, the IT companies have themselves become major players in politics.

A fourth player is now emerging – artificial intelligence, and it will grow rapidly in importance into the far future. Simple algorithms have already been upgraded to assorted neural network variants and already this is causing problems with accusations of bias from all directions. I blogged recently about Fake AI: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/11/16/fake-ai/, concerned that when AI analyses large datasets and comes up with politically incorrect insights, this is now being interpreted as something that needs to be fixed – a case not of shooting the messenger, but forcing the messenger to wear tinted spectacles. I would argue that AI should be allowed to reach whatever insights it can from a dataset, and it is then our responsibility to decide what to do with those insights. If that involves introducing a bias into implementation, that can be debated, but it should at least be transparent, and not hidden inside the AI itself. I am now concerned that by trying to ‘re-educate’ the AI, we may instead be indoctrinating it, locking today’s politics and values into future AI and all the systems that use it. Our values will change, but some foundation level AI may be too opaque to repair fully.

What worries me most though isn’t that these groups try their best to influence us. It could be argued that in free countries, with free speech, anybody should be able to use whatever means they can to try to influence us. No, the real problem is that recent (last 25 years, but especially the last 5) evolution of media and social media has produced a world where most people only ever see one part of a story, and even though many are aware of that, they don’t even try to find the rest and won’t look at it if it is put before them, because they don’t want to see things that don’t align with their existing mindset. We are building a world full of people who only see and consider part of the picture. Social media and its ‘bubbles’ reinforce that trend, but other media are equally guilty.

How can we shake society out of this ongoing polarisation? It isn’t just that politics becomes more aggressive. It also becomes less effective. Almost all politicians claim they want to make the world ‘better’, but they disagree on what exactly that means and how best to do so. But if they only see part of the problem, and don’t see or understand the basic structure and mechanisms of the system in which that problem exists, then they are very poorly placed to identify a viable solution, let alone an optimal one.

Until we can fix this extreme blinkering that already exists, our world can not get as ‘better’ as it should.

 

Mars trips won’t have to take months

It is exciting seeing the resurgence in interest in space travel, especially the prospect that Mars trips are looking increasingly feasible. Every year, far-future projects come a year closer. Mars has been on the agenda for decades, but now the tech needed is coming over the horizon.

You’ve probably already read about Elon Musk’s SpaceX plans, so I won’t bother repeating them here. The first trips will be dangerous but the passengers on the first successful trip will get to go down in history as the first human Mars visitors. That prospect of lasting fame and a place in history plus the actual experience and excitement of doing the trip will add up to more than enough reward to tempt lots of people to join the queue to be considered. A lucky and elite few will eventually land there. Some might stay as the first colonists. It won’t be long after that before the first babies are born on Mars, and their names will certainly be remembered, the first true Martians.

I am optimistic that the costs and travel times involved in getting to Mars can be reduced enormously. Today’s space travel relies on rockets, but my own invention, the Pythagoras Sling, could reduce the costs of getting materials and people to orbit by a factor of 50 or 100 compared the SpaceX rockets, which already are far cheaper than NASA’s. A system introduction paper can be downloaded from:

https://carbondevices.files.wordpress.com/2017/09/pythagoras-sling-article.pdf

Sling

Sadly, in spite of obviously being far more feasible and shorter term than a space elevator, we have not yet been able to get our paper published in a space journal so that is the only source so far.

This picture shows one implementation for non-human payloads, but tape length and scale could be increased to allow low-g human launches some day, or more likely, early systems would allow space-based anchors to be built with different launch architecture for human payloads.

The Sling needs graphene tape, a couple of parachutes or a floating drag platform and a magnetic drive to pull the tape, using standard linear motor principles as used in linear induction motors and rail guns. The tape is simply attached to the rocket and pulled through two high altitude anchors attached to the platforms or parachutes. Here is a pic of the tape drive designed for another use, but the principle is the same. Rail gun technology works well today, and could easily be adapted into this inverse form to drive a suitably engineered tape at incredible speed.

All the components are reusable, but shouldn’t cost much compared to heavy rockets anyway. The required parachutes exist today, but we don’t have graphene tape or the motor to pull it yet. As space industry continues to develop, these will come. The Space Elevator will need millions of tons of graphene, the Sling only needs around 100 kilograms so will certainly be possible decades before a space elevator. The sling configuration can achieve full orbital speeds for payloads using only electrical energy at the ground, so is also much less environmentally damaging than rocketry.

Using tech such as the Sling, material can be put into orbit to make space stations and development factories for all sorts of space activity. One project that I would put high on the priority list would be another tape-pulling launch system, early architecture suggestion here:.

Since it will be in space, laying tape out in a long line would be no real problem, even millions of kms, and with motors arranged periodically along the length, a long tape pointed in the right direction could launch a payload towards a Mars interception system at extreme speeds. We need to think big, since the distances traveled will be big. A launch system weighing 40,000 tons would be large scale engineering but not exceptional, and although graphene today is very expensive as with any novel material, it will become much cheaper as manufacturing technology catches up (if the graphene filament print heads I suggest work as I hope, graphene filament could be made at 200m/s and woven into yarn by a spinneret as it emerges from multiple heads). In the following pics, carbon atoms are fed through nanotubes with the right timing, speed and charges to combine into graphene as they emerge. The second pic shows why the nanotubes need to be tilted towards each other since otherwise the molecular geometry doesn’t work, and this requirement limits the heads to make thin filaments with just two or three carbon rings wide. The second pic mentions carbon foam, which would be perfect to make stratospheric floating platforms as an alternative to using parachutes in the Sling system.

Graphene filament head, ejects graphene filament at 200m/s.

A large ship is of that magnitude, as are some building or bridges. Such a launch system would allow people to get to Mars in 5-12 days, and payloads of g-force tolerant supplies such as water could be sent to arrive in a day. The intercept system at the Mars end would need to be of similar size to catch and decelerate the payload into Mars orbit. The systems at both ends can be designed to be used for launch or intercept as needed.

I’ve been a systems engineer for 36 years and a futurologist for 27 of those. The system solutions I propose should work if there is no better solution available, but since we’re talking about the far future, it is far more likely that better systems will be invented by smarter engineers or AIs by the time we’re ready to use them. Rocketry will probably get us through to the 2040s but after that, I believe these solutions can be made real and Mars trips after that could become quite routine. I present these solutions as proof that the problems can be solved, by showing that potential solutions already exist. As a futurologist, all I really care about is that someone will be able to do it somehow.

 

So, there really is no need to think in terms of months of travel each way, we should think of rapid supply chains and human travel times around a week or two – not so different from the first US immigrants from Europe.