Category Archives: technology

We need to stop xenoestrogen pollution

Endocrine disruptors in the environment are becoming more abundant due to a wide variety of human-related activities over the last few decades. They affect mechanisms by which the body’s endocrine system generates and responds to hormones, by attaching to receptors in similar ways to natural hormones. Minuscule quantities of hormones can have very substantial effects on the body so even very diluted pollutants may have significant effects. A sub-class called xenoestrogens specifically attach to estrogen receptors in the body and by doing so, can generate similar effects to estrogen in both women and men, affecting not just women’s breasts and wombs but also bone growth, blood clotting, immune systems and neurological systems in both men and women. Since the body can’t easily detach them from their receptors, they can sometimes exert a longer-lived effect than estrogen, remaining in the body for long periods and in women may lead to estrogen dominance. They are also alleged to contribute to prostate and testicular cancer, obesity, infertility and diabetes. Most notably, mimicking sex hormones, they also affect puberty and sex and gender-specific development.

Xenoestrogens can arise from breakdown or release of many products in the petrochemical and plastics industries. They may be emitted from furniture, carpets, paints or plastic packaging, especially if that packaging is heated, e.g. in preparing ready-meals. Others come from women taking contraceptive pills if drinking water treatment is not effective enough. Phthalates are a major group of synthetic xenoestrogens – endocrine-disrupting estrogen-mimicking chemicals, along with BPA and PCBs. Phthalates are present in cleaning products, shampoos, cosmetics, fragrances and other personal care products as well as soft, squeezable plastics often used in packaging but some studies have also found them in foodstuffs such as dairy products and imported spices. There have been efforts to outlaw some, but others persist because of lack of easy alternatives and lack of regulation, so most people are exposed to them, in doses linked to their lifestyles. Google ‘phthalates’ or ‘xenoestrogen’ and you’ll find lots of references to alleged negative effects on intelligence, fertility, autism, asthma, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neurological development and birth defects. It’s the gender and IQ effects I’ll look at in this blog, but obviously the other effects are also important.

‘Gender-bending’ effects have been strongly suspected since 2005, with the first papers on endocrine disrupting chemicals appearing in the early 1990s. Some fish notably change gender when exposed to phthalates while human studies have found significant feminizing effects from prenatal exposure in young boys too (try googling “human phthalates gender” if you want references).  They are also thought likely to be a strong contributor to greatly reducing sperm counts across the male population. This issue is of huge importance because of its effects on people’s lives, but its proper study is often impeded by LGBT activist groups. It is one thing to champion LGBT rights, quite another to defend pollution that may be influencing people’s gender and sexuality. SJWs should not be advocating that human sexuality and in particular the lifelong dependence on medication and surgery required to fill gender-change demands should be arbitrarily imposed on people by chemical industry pollution – such a stance insults the dignity of LGBT people. Any exposure to life-changing chemicals should be deliberate and measured. That also requires that we fully understand the effects of each kind of chemical so they also should not be resisting studies of these effects.

The evidence is there. The numbers of people saying they identify as the opposite gender or are gender fluid has skyrocketed in the years since these chemicals appeared, as has the numbers of men describing themselves as gay or bisexual. That change in self-declared sexuality has been accompanied by visible changes. An AI recently demonstrated better than 90% success at visually identifying gay and bisexual men from photos alone, indicating that it is unlikely to be just a ‘social construct’. Hormone-mimicking chemicals are the most likely candidate for an environmental factor that could account for both increasing male homosexuality and feminizing gender identity.

Gender dysphoria causes real problems for some people – misery, stress, and in those who make a full physical transition, sometimes post-op regrets and sometimes suicide. Many male-to-female transsexuals are unhappy that even after surgery and hormones, they may not look 100% feminine or may require ongoing surgery to maintain a feminine appearance. Change often falls short of their hopes, physically and psychologically. If xenoestrogen pollution is causing severe unhappiness, even if that is only for some of those whose gender has been affected, then we should fix it. Forcing acceptance and equality on others only superficially addresses part of their problems, leaving a great deal of their unhappiness behind.

Not all affected men are sufficiently affected to demand gender change. Some might gladly change if it were possible to change totally and instantly to being a natural woman without the many real-life issues and compromises offered by surgery and hormones, but choose to remain as men and somehow deal with their dysphoria as the lesser of two problems. That impacts on every individual differently. I’ve always kept my own feminine leanings to being cyber-trans (assuming a female identity online or in games) with my only real-world concession being wearing feminine glasses styles. Whether I’m more feminine or less masculine than I might have been doesn’t bother me; I am happy with who I am; but I can identify with transgender forces driving others and sympathize with all the problems that brings them, whatever their choices.

Gender and sexuality are not the only things affected. Xenoestrogens are also implicated in IQ-reducing effects. IQ reduction is worrying for society if it means fewer extremely intelligent people making fewer major breakthroughs, though it is less of a personal issue. Much of the effect is thought to occur while still in the womb, though effects continue through childhood and some even into adulthood. Therefore individuals couldn’t detect an effect of being denied a potentially higher IQ and since there isn’t much of a link between IQ and happiness, you could argue that it doesn’t matter much, but on the other hand, I’d be pretty miffed if I’ve been cheated out of a few IQ points, especially when I struggle so often on the very edge of understanding something. 

Gender and IQ effects on men would have quite different socioeconomic consequences. While feminizing effects might influence spending patterns, or the numbers of men eager to join the military or numbers opposing military activity, IQ effects might mean fewer top male engineers and top male scientists.

It is not only an overall IQ reduction that would be significant. Studies have often claimed that although men and women have the same average IQ, the distribution is different and that more men lie at the extremes, though that is obviously controversial and rapidly becoming a taboo topic. But if men are being psychologically feminized by xenoestrogens, then their IQ distribution might be expected to align more closely with female IQ distributions too, the extremes brought closer to centre.  In that case, male IQ range-compression would further reduce the numbers of top male scientists and engineers on top of any reduction caused by a shift. 

The extremes are very important. As a lifelong engineer, my experience has been that a top engineer might contribute as much as many average ones. If people who might otherwise have been destined to be top scientists and engineers are being prevented from becoming so by the negative effects of pollution, that is not only a personal tragedy (albeit a phantom tragedy, never actually experienced), but also a big loss for society, which develops slower than should have been the case. Even if that society manages to import fine minds from elsewhere, their home country must lose out. This matters less as AI improves, but it still matters.

Looking for further evidence of this effect, one outcome would be that women in affected areas would be expected to account for a higher proportion of top engineers and scientists, and a higher proportion of first class degrees in Math and Physical Sciences, once immigrants are excluded. Tick. (Coming from different places and cultures, first generation immigrants are less likely to have been exposed in the womb to the same pollutants so would not be expected to suffer as much of the same effects. Second generation immigrants would include many born to mothers only recently exposed, so would also be less affected on average. 3rd generation immigrants who have fully integrated would show little difference.)

We’d also expect to see a reducing proportion of tech startups founded by men native to regions affected by xenoestrogens. Tick. In fact, 80% of Silicon Valley startups are by first or second generation immigrants. 

We’d also expect to see relatively fewer patents going to men native to regions affected by xenoestrogens. Erm, no idea.

We’d also expect technology progress to be a little slower and for innovations to arrive later than previously expected based on traditional development rates. Tick. I’m not the only one to think engineers are getting less innovative.

So, there is some evidence for this hypothesis, some hard, some colloquial. Lower inventiveness and scientific breakthrough rate is a problem for both human well-being and the economy. The problems will continue to grow until this pollution is fixed, and will persist until the (two) generations affected have retired. Some further outcomes can easily be predicted:

Unless AI proceeds well enough to make a human IQ drop irrelevant, and it might, then we should expect that having enjoyed centuries of the high inventiveness that made them the rich nations they are today, the West in particular would be set on a path to decline unless it brings in inventive people from elsewhere. To compensate for decreasing inventiveness, even in 3rd generation immigrants (1st and 2nd are largely immune), they would need to attract ongoing immigration to survive in a competitive global environment. So one consequence of this pollution is that it requires increasing immigration to maintain a prosperous economy. As AI increases its effect on making up deficiencies, this effect would drop in importance, but will still have an impact until AI exceeds the applicable intelligence levels of the top male scientists and engineers. By ‘applicable’, I’m recognizing that different aspects of intelligence might be appropriate in inventiveness and insight levels, and a simple IQ measurement might not be sufficient indicator.

Another interesting aspect of AI/gender interaction is that AI is currently being criticised from some directions for having bias, because it uses massive existing datasets for its training. These datasets contain actual data rather than ideological spin, so ‘insights’ are therefore not always politically correct. Nevertheless, they but could be genuinely affected by actual biases in data collection. While there may well be actual biases in such training datasets, it is not easy to determine what they are without having access to a correct dataset to compare with. That introduces a great deal of subjectivity, because ‘correct’ is a very politically sensitive term. There would be no agreement on what the correct rules would be for dataset collection or processing. Pressure groups will always demand favour for their favorite groups and any results that suggest that any group is better or worse than any other will always meet with objections from activists, who will demand changes in the rules until their own notion of ‘equality’ results. If AI is to be trained to be politically correct rather than to reflect the ‘real world’, that will inevitably reduce any correlation between AI’s world models and actual reality, and reduce its effective general intelligence. I’d be very much against sabotaging AI by brainwashing it to conform to current politically correct fashions, but then I don’t control AI companies. PC distortion of AI may result from any pressure group or prejudice – race, gender, sexuality, age, religion, political leaning and so on. Now that the IT industry seems to have already caved in to PC demands, the future for AI will be inevitably sub-optimal.

A combination of feminization, decreasing heterosexuality and fast-reducing sperm counts would result in reducing reproductive rate among xenoestrogen exposed communities, again with 1st and 2nd generation immigrants immune. That correlates well with observations, albeit there are other possible explanations. With increasing immigration, relatively higher reproductive rates among recent immigrants, and reducing reproduction rates among native (3rd generation or more) populations, high ethnic replacement of native populations will occur. Racial mix will become very different very quickly, with groups resident longest being displaced most. Allowing xenoestrogens to remain is therefore a sort of racial suicide, reverse ethnic cleansing. I make no value judgement here on changing racial mix, I’m just predicting it.

With less testosterone and more men resisting military activities, exposed communities will also become more militarily vulnerable and consequently less influential.

Now increasingly acknowledged, this pollution is starting to be tackled. A few of these chemicals have been banned and more are likely to follow. If successful, effects will start to disappear, and new babies will no longer be affected. But even that will  create another problem, with two generations of people with significantly different characteristics from those before and after them. These two generations will have substantially more transgender people, more feminine men, and fewer macho men than those following. Their descendants may have all the usual inter-generational conflicts but with a few others added.

LGBTQ issues are topical and ubiquitous. Certainly we must aim for a society that treats everyone with equality and dignity as far as possible, but we should also aim for one where people’s very nature isn’t dictated by pollution.

 

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Guest Post: Blade Runner 2049 is the product of decades of fear propaganda. It’s time to get enlightened about AI and optimistic about the future

This post from occasional contributor Chris Moseley

News from several months ago that more than 100 experts in robotics and artificial intelligence were calling on the UN to ban the development and use of killer robots is a reminder of the power of humanity’s collective imagination. Stimulated by countless science fiction books and films, robotics and AI is a potent feature of what futurist Alvin Toffler termed ‘future shock’. AI and robots have become the public’s ‘technology bogeymen’, more fearsome curse than technological blessing.

And yet curiously it is not so much the public that is fomenting this concern, but instead the leading minds in the technology industry. Names such as Tesla’s Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking were among the most prominent individuals on a list of 116 tech experts who have signed an open letter asking the UN to ban autonomous weapons in a bid to prevent an arms race.

These concerns appear to emanate from decades of titillation, driven by pulp science fiction writers. Such writers are insistent on foretelling a dark, foreboding future where intelligent machines, loosed from their binds, destroy mankind. A case in point – this autumn, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner has been released. Blade Runner,and 2017’s Blade Runner 2049, are of course a glorious tour de force of story-telling and amazing special effects. The concept for both films came from US author Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in which androids are claimed to possess no sense of empathy eventually require killing (“retiring”) when they go rogue. Dick’s original novel is an entertaining, but an utterly bleak vision of the future, without much latitude to consider a brighter, more optimistic alternative.

But let’s get real here. Fiction is fiction; science is science. For the men and women who work in the technology industry the notion that myriad Frankenstein monsters can be created from robots and AI technology is assuredly both confused and histrionic. The latest smart technologies might seem to suggest a frightful and fateful next step, a James Cameron Terminator nightmare scenario. It might suggest a dystopian outcome, but rational thought ought to lead us to suppose that this won’t occur because we have historical precedent on our side. We shouldn’t be drawn to this dystopian idée fixe because summoning golems and ghouls ignores today’s global arsenal of weapons and the fact that, more 70 years after Hiroshima, nuclear holocaust has been kept at bay.

By stubbornly pursuing the dystopian nightmare scenario, we are denying ourselves from marvelling at the technologies which are in fact daily helping mankind. Now frame this thought in terms of human evolution. For our ancient forebears a beneficial change in physiology might spread across the human race over the course of a hundred thousand years. Today’s version of evolution – the introduction of a compelling new technology – spreads throughout a mass audience in a week or two.

Curiously, for all this light speed evolution mass annihilation remains absent – we live on, progressing, evolving and improving ourselves.

And in the workplace, another domain where our unyielding dealers of dystopia have exercised their thoughts, technology is of course necessarily raising a host of concerns about the future. Some of these concerns are based around a number of misconceptions surrounding AI. Machines, for example, are not original thinkers and are unable to set their own goals. And although machine learning is able to acquire new information through experience, for the most part they are still fed information to process. Humans are still needed to set goals, provide data to fuel artificial intelligence and apply critical thinking and judgment. The familiar symbiosis of humans and machines will continue to be salient.

Banish the menace of so-called ‘killer robots’ and AI taking your job, and a newer, fresher world begins to emerge. With this more optimistic mind-set in play, what great feats can be accomplished through the continued interaction between artificial intelligence, robotics and mankind?

Blade Runner 2049 is certainly great entertainment – as Robbie Collin, The Daily Telegraph’s film critic writes, “Roger Deakins’s head-spinning cinematography – which, when it’s not gliding over dust-blown deserts and teeming neon chasms, keeps finding ingenious ways to make faces and bodies overlap, blend and diffuse.” – but great though the art is, isn’t it time to change our thinking and recast the world in a more optimistic light?

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Just a word about the film itself. Broadly, director Denis Villeneuve’s done a tremendous job with Blade Runner 2049. One stylistic gripe, though. While one wouldn’t want Villeneuve to direct a slavish homage to Ridley Scott’s original, the alarming switch from the dreamlike techno miasma (most notably, giant nude step-out-the-poster Geisha girls), to Mad Max II Steampunk (the junkyard scenes, complete with a Fagin character) is simply too jarring. I predict that there will be a director’s cut in years to come. Shorter, leaner and sans Steampunk … watch this space!

Author: Chris Moseley, PR Manager, London Business School

cmoseley@london.edu

Tel +44 7511577803

Instant buildings: Kinetic architecture

Revisiting an idea I raised in a blog in July last year. Even I think it was badly written so it’s worth a second shot.

Construction techniques are diverse and will get diverser. Just as we’re getting used to seeing robotic bricklaying and 3D printed walls, another technique is coming over the horizon that will build so fast I call it kinetic architecture. The structure will be built so quickly it can build a bridge from one side just by building upwards at an angle, and the structure will span the gap and meet the ground at the other side before gravity has a chance to collapse it.

The key to such architecture is electromagnetic propulsion, the same as on the Japanese bullet trains or the Hyperloop, using magnetic forces caused by electric currents to propel the next piece along the existing structure to the front end where it acts as part of the path for the next. Adding pieces quickly enough leads to structures that can follow elegant paths, as if the structure is a permanent trace of the path an object would have followed if it were catapulted into the air and falling due to gravity. It could be used for buildings, bridges, or simply art.

It will become possible thanks to new materials such as graphene and other carbon composites using nanotubes. Graphene combines extreme strength, hence lightness for a particular strength requirement, with extreme conductivity, allowing it to carry very high electric currents, and therefore able to generate high magnetic forces. It is a perfect material for kinetic architecture. Pieces would have graphene electromagnet circuitry printed on their surface. Suitable circuit design would mean that every extra piece falling into place becomes an extension to the magnetic railway transporting the next piece. Just as railroads may be laid out just in front of the train using pieces carried by the train, so pieces shot into the air provide a self-building path for other pieces to follow. A building skeleton could be erected in seconds. I mentioned in my original blog (about carbethium) that this could be used to create the sort of light bridges we see in Halo. A kinetic architecture skeleton would be shot across the divide and the filler pieces in between quickly transported into place along the skeleton and assembled.

See https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2016/07/25/carbethium-a-better-than-scifi-material/. The electronic circuitry potential for graphene also allows for generating plasma or simply powering LEDs to give a nice glow just like the light bridges too.

Apart from clever circuit design, kinetic architecture also requires pieces that can interlock. The kinetic energy of the new piece arriving at the front edge would ideally be sufficient to rotate it into place, interlocking with previous front edge. 3d interlocking is tricky but additional circuitry can provide additional magnetic forces to rotate and translate pieces if kinetic energy alone isn’t enough. The key is that once interlocked, the top surface has to form a smooth continuous line with the previous one, so that pieces can move along smoothly. Hooks can catch an upcoming piece to make it rotate, with the hooks merging nicely with part of the new piece as it falls into place, making those hooks part of a now smooth surface and a new hook at the new front end. You’ll have to imagine it yourself, I can’t draw it. Obviously, pieces would need precision engineering because they’d need to fit precisely to give the required strength and fit.

Ideally, with sufficiently well-designed pieces, it should be possible to dismantle the structure by reversing the build process, unlocking each end piece in turn and transporting it back to base along the structure until no structure remains.

I can imagine such techniques being used at first for artistic creations, sculptures using beautiful parabolic arcs. But they could also be used for rapid assembly for emergency buildings, instant evacuation routes for tall buildings, or to make temporary bridges after an earthquake destroyed a permanent one. When a replacement has been made, the temporary one could be rolled back up and used elsewhere. Maybe it could become routine for making temporary structures that are needed quickly such as for pop concerts and festivals. One day it could become an everyday building technique. 

Mega-buildings could become cultural bubbles

My regular readers, both of them in fact, will know I am often concerned about the dangerous growth of social media bubbles. By mid-century, thanks to upcoming materials, some cities will have a few buildings over 1km tall, possibly 10km (and a spaceport or two up to 30km high). These would be major buildings, and could create a similar problem.

A 1km building could have 200 floors, and with 100m square floors, 200 hectares of space.  Assuming half is residential space and the other half is shops, offices or services, that equates to 20,000 luxury apartments (90 sq m each) or 40,000 basic flats. That means each such building could be equivalent to a small town, with maybe 50,000 inhabitants. A 10km high mega-building, with a larger 250m side, would have 60 times more space, housing up to 300,000 people and all they need day-to-day, essentially a city.

Construction could be interesting. My thoughts are that a 10km building could be extruded from the ground using high pressure 3D printing, rather than assembled with cranes. Each floor could be fully fitted out while it is still near ground level, its apartments sold and populated, even as the building grows upward. That keeps construction costs and cash flow manageable.

My concern is that although we will have the technology to build such buildings in the 2040s, I’m not aware of much discussion about how cultures would evolve in such places, at least not outside of sci-fi (like Judge Dredd or Blade Runner). I rather hope we wouldn’t just build them first and try to solve social problems later. We really ought to have some sort of plans to make them work.

In a 100m side building, entire floors or groups of floors would likely be allocated to particular functions – residential, shopping, restaurants, businesses etc. Grouping functions sensibly reduces the total travel needed. In larger buildings, it is easier to have local shops mixed with apartments for everyday essentials, with larger malls elsewhere.

People could live almost entirely in the building, rarely needing to leave, and many might well do just that, essentially becoming institutionalized. I think these buildings will feel very different from small towns. In small towns, people still travel a lot to other places, and a feeling of geographic isolation doesn’t emerge. In a huge tower block of similar population and facilities, I don’t think people would leave as often, and many will stay inside. All they need is close by and might soon feel safe and familiar, while the external world might seem more distant, scarier. Institutionalization might not take long, a month or two of becoming used to the convenience of staying nearby while watching news of horrors going on elsewhere. Once people stop the habit of leaving the building, it could become easier to find reasons not to leave it in future.

Power structures would soon evolve – local politics would happen, criminal gangs would emerge, people would soon learn of good and bad zones. It’s possible that people might become tribal, their building and their tribe competing for external resources and funding with tribes in other mega-buildings, and their might be conflict. Knowing they are physically detached, the same bravery to attack total strangers just because they hold different views might emerge that we see on social media today. There might be cyber-wars, drone wars, IoT wars between buildings.

I’m not claiming to be a social anthropologist. I have no real idea how these buildings will work and perhaps my fears are unjustified. But even I can see some potential problems just based on what we see today, magnified for the same reasons problems get magnified on social media. Feelings of safety and anonymity can lead to some very nasty tribal behaviors. Managing diversity of opinion among people moving in would be a significant challenge, maintaining it might be near impossible. With the sort of rapid polarization we’ve already seen today thanks to social media bubbles, physically contained communities would surely see those same forces magnified everyday.

Building a 10km mega-building will become feasible in the 2040s, and increased urban populations will make them an attractive option for planners. Managing them and making them work socially might be a much bigger challenge.

 

 

Hull in 2050

I wrote a piece for KCOM on what we can expect to feature in the city by 2050.

KCOM illustration

Highlights and KCOM commentary at: https://www.kcomhome.com/news/articles/welcome-to-the-hull-of-the-future/

If you want my full article, they have allowed me to share it. Here is a pdf of my original article, but it’s just text – I can’t do nice graphics:

 

Hull 2050

They also have a great project called We Made Ourselves Over, set in 2097. Here’s one of their graphics from that:

Graphic from http://wemadeourselvesover.com/

The age of dignity

I just watched a short video of robots doing fetch and carry jobs in an Alibaba distribution centre:

http://uk.businessinsider.com/inside-alibaba-smart-warehouse-robots-70-per-cent-work-technology-logistics-2017-9

There are numerous videos of robots in various companies doing tasks that used to be done by people. In most cases those tasks were dull, menial, drudgery tasks that treated people as machines. Machines should rightly do those tasks. In partnership with robots, AI is also replacing some tasks that used to be done by people. Many are worried about increasing redundancy but I’m not; I see a better world. People should instead be up-skilled by proper uses of AI and robotics and enabled to do work that is more rewarding and treats them with dignity. People should do work that uses their human skills in ways that they find rewarding and fulfilling. People should not have to do work they find boring or demeaning just because they have to earn money. They should be able to smile at work and rest at the end of the day knowing that they have helped others or made the world a better place. If we use AI, robots and people in the right ways, we can build that world.

Take a worker in a call centre. Automation has already replaced humans in most simple transactions like paying a bill, checking a balance or registering a new credit card. It is hard to imagine that anyone ever enjoyed doing that as their job. Now, call centre workers mostly help people in ways that allow them to use their personalities and interpersonal skills, being helpful and pleasant instead of just typing data into a keyboard. It is more enjoyable and fulfilling for the caller, and presumably for the worker too, knowing they genuinely helped someone’s day go a little better. I just renewed my car insurance. I phoned up to cancel the existing policy because it had increased in price too much. The guy at the other end of the call was very pleasant and helpful and met me half way on the price difference, so I ended up staying for another year. His company is a little richer, I was a happier customer, and he had a pleasant interaction instead of having to put up with an irate customer and also the job satisfaction from having converted a customer intending to leave into one happy to stay. The AI at his end presumably gave him the information he needed and the limits of discount he was permitted to offer. Success. In billions of routine transactions like that, the world becomes a little happier and just as important, a little more dignified. There is more dignity in helping someone than in pushing a button.

Almost always, when AI enters a situation, it replaces individual tasks that used to take precious time and that were not very interesting to do. Every time you google something, a few microseconds of AI saves you half a day in a library and all those half days add up to a lot of extra time every year for meeting colleagues, human interactions, learning new skills and knowledge or even relaxing. You become more human and less of a machine. Your self-actualisation almost certainly increases in one way or another and you become a slightly better person.

There will soon be many factories and distribution centres that have few or no people at all, and that’s fine. It reduces the costs of making material goods so average standard of living can increase. A black box economy that has automated mines or recycling plants extracting raw materials and uses automated power plants to convert them into high quality but cheap goods adds to the total work available to add value; in other words it increases the size of the economy. Robots can make other robots and together with AI, they could make all we need, do all the fetching and carrying, tidying up, keeping it all working, acting as willing servants in every role we want them in. With greater economic wealth and properly organised taxation, which will require substantial change from today, people could be freed to do whatever fulfills them. Automation increases average standard of living while liberating people to do human interaction jobs, crafts, sports, entertainment, leading, inspiring, teaching, persuading, caring and so on, creating a care economy. 

Each person knows what they are good at, what they enjoy. With AI and robot assistance, they can more easily make that their everyday activity. AI could do their company set-up, admin, billing, payments, tax, payroll – all the crap that makes being an entrepreneur a pain in the ass and stops many people pursuing their dreams.  Meanwhile they would do that above a very generous welfare net. Many of us now are talking about the concept of universal basic income, or citizen wage. With ongoing economic growth at the average rate of the last few decades, the global economy will be between twice and three times as big as today in the 2050s. Western countries could pay every single citizen a basic wage equivalent to today’s average wage, and if they work or run a company, they can earn more.

We will have an age where material goods are high quality, work well and are cheap to buy, and recycled in due course to minimise environmental harm. Better materials, improved designs and techniques, higher efficiency and land productivity and better recycling will mean that people can live with higher standards of living in a healthier environment. With a generous universal basic income, they will not have to worry about paying their bills. And doing only work that they want to do that meets their self-actualisation needs, everyone can live a life of happiness and dignity.

Enough of the AI-redundancy alarmism. If we elect good leaders who understand the options ahead, we can build a better world, for everyone. We can make real the age of dignity.

Tips for surviving the future

Challenging times lie ahead, but stress can be lessened by being prepared. Here are my top tips, with some explanation so you can decide whether to accept them.

1 Adaptability is more important than specialization

In a stable environment, being the most specialized means you win most of the time in your specialist field because all your skill is concentrated there.

However, in a fast-changing environment, which is what you’ll experience for the rest of your life, if you are too specialized, you are very likely to find you are best in a filed that no longer exists, or is greatly diminished in size. If you make sure you are more adaptable, then you’ll find it easier to adapt to a new area so your career won’t be damaged when you are forced to change field slightly. Adaptability comes at a price – you will find it harder to be best in your field and will have to settle for 2nd or 3rd much of the time, but you’ll still be lucratively employed when No 1 has been made redundant.

2 Interpersonal, human, emotional skills are more important than knowledge

You’ve heard lots about artificial intelligence (AI) and how it is starting to do to professional knowledge jobs what the steam engine once did to heavy manual work. Some of what you hear is overstated. Google search is a simple form of AI. It has helped everyone do more with their day. It effectively replaced a half day searching for information in a library with a few seconds typing, but nobody has counted how many people it made redundant, because it hasn’t. It up-skilled everyone, made them more effective, more valuable to their employer. The next generation of AI may do much the same with most employees, up-skilling them to do a better job than they were previously capable of, giving them better job satisfaction and their employer better return. Smart employers will keep most of their staff, only getting rid of those entirely replaceable by technology. But some will take the opportunity to reduce costs, increase margins, and many new companies simply won’t employ as many people in similar jobs, so some redundancy is inevitable. The first skills to go are simple administration and simple physical tasks, then more complex admin or physical stuff, then simple managerial or professional tasks, then higher managerial and professional tasks. The skills that will be automated last are those that rely on first hand experience of understanding of and dealing with other people. AI can learn some of that and will eventually become good at it, but that will take a long time. Even then, many people will prefer to deal with another person than a machine, however smart and pleasant it is.

So interpersonal skills, human skills, emotional skills, caring skills, leadership and motivational skills, empathetic skills, human judgement skills, teaching and training skills will be harder to replace. They also tend to be ones that can easily transfer between companies and even sectors. These will therefore be the ones that are most robust against technology impact. If you have these in good shape, you’ll do just fine. Your company may not need you any more one day, but another will.

I called this the Care Economy when I first started writing and lecturing about it 20-odd years ago. I predicted it would start having an affect mid teen years of this century and I got that pretty accurate I think. There is another side that is related but not the same:

3 People will still value human skill and talent just because it’s human

If you buy a box of glasses from your local supermarket, they probably cost very little and are all identical. If you buy some hand-made crystal, it costs a lot more, even though every glass is slightly different. You could call that shoddy workmanship compared to a machine. But you know that the person who made it trained for many years to get a skill level you’d never manage, so you actually value them far more, and are happy to pay accordingly. If you want to go fast, you could get in your car, but you still admire top athletes because they can do their sport far better than you. They started by having great genes for sure, but then also worked extremely hard and suffered great sacrifice over many years to get to that level. In the future, when robots can do any physical task more accurately and faster than people, you will still value crafts and still enjoy watching humans compete. You’ll prefer real human comedians and dancers and singers and musicians and artists. Talent and skill isn’t valued because of the specification of the end result, they are valued because they are measured on the human scale, and you identify closely with that. It isn’t even about being a machine. Gorillas are stronger, cheetahs are faster, eagles have better eyesight and cats have faster reflexes than you. But they aren’t human so you don’t care. You will always measure yourself and others by human scales and appreciate them accordingly.

4 Find hobbies that you love and devote time to developing them

As this care economy and human skills dominance grows in importance, people will also find that AI and robotics helps them in their own hobbies, arts and crafts, filling in skill gaps, improving proficiency. A lot of people will find their hobbies can become semi-professional. At the same time, we’ll be seeing self-driving cars and drones making local delivery far easier and cheaper, and AI will soon make business and tax admin easy too. That all means that barriers to setting up a small business will fall through the floor, while the market for personalized, original products made my people will increase, especially local people. You’ll be able to make arts and crafts, jam or cakes, grow vegetables, make clothes or special bags or whatever, and easily sell them. Also at the same time, automation will be making everyday things cheaper, while expanding the economy, so the welfare floor will be raised, and you could probably manage just fine with a small extra income. Government is also likely to bring in some sort of citizen wage or to encourage such extra entrepreneurial activity without taxing it away, because they also have a need to deal with the social consequences of automation. So it will all probably come together quite well. If the future means you can make extra money or even a full income by doing a hobby you love, there isn’t much to dislike there.

5 You need to escape from your social media bubble

If you watch the goings on anywhere in the West today, you must notice that the Left and the Right don’t seem to get along any more. Each has become very intolerant of the other, treating them more like enemy aliens than ordinary neighbors. A lot of that is caused by people only being exposed to views they agree with. We call that social media bubbles, and they are extremely dangerous. The recent USA trouble is starting to look like some folks want a re-run of the Civil War. I’ve blogged lots about this topic and won’t do it again now except to say that you need to expose yourself to a wide subsection of society. You need to read paper and magazines and blogs, and watch TV or videos from all side of the political spectrum, not just those you agree with, not just those that pat you on the back every day and tell you that you’re right and it is all the other lot’s fault. If you don’t; if you only expose yourself to one side because you find the other side distasteful, then I can’t say this loud enough: You are part of the problem. Get out of your safe space and your social media tribe, expose yourself to the whole of society, not just one tribe. See that there are lots of different views out there but it doesn’t mean the rest are all nasty. Almost everyone is actually quite nice and almost everyone wants a fairer world, an end to exploitation, peace, tolerance and eradication of disease and poverty. The differences are almost all in the world model that they use to figure out the best way to achieve it. Lefties tend to opt for idealistic theoretical models and value the intention behind it, right-wingers tend to be pragmatic and go for what they think works in reality, valuing the outcome. It is actually possible to have best friends who you disagree with. I don’t often agree with any of mine. If you feel too comfortable in your bubble to leave, remember this: your market is only half the population at best , you’re excluding the other half, or even annoying them so they become enemies rather than neutral. If you stay in a bubble, you are damaging your own future, and helping to endanger the whole of society.

6 Don’t worry

There are lots of doom-mongers out there, and I’d be the first to admit that there are many dangers ahead. But if you do the things above, there probably isn’t much more you can do. You can moan and demonstrate and get angry or cry in the corner, but how would that benefit you? Usually when you analyse things long enough from all angles, you realize that the outcome of many of the big political battles is pretty much independent of who wins.  Politicians usually have far less choice than they want you to believe and the big forces win regardless of who is in charge. So there isn’t much point in worrying about it, it will probably all come out fine in the end. Don’t believe me. Take the biggest UK issue right now: Brexit. We are leaving. Does it matter? No. Why? Well, the EU was always going to break up anyway. Stresses and strains have been increasing for years and are accelerating. For all sorts of reasons, and regardless of any current bluster by ‘leaders’, the EU will head away from the vision of a United States of Europe. As tensions and conflicts escalate, borders will be restored. Nations will disagree with the EU ideal. One by one, several countries will copy the UK and have referendums, and then leave. At some point, the EU will be much smaller, and there will be lots of countries outside with their own big markets. They will form trade agreements, the original EU idea, the Common Market, will gradually be re-formed, and the UK will be part of it – even Brexiters want tariff-free-trade agreements. If the UK had stayed, the return to the Common Market would eventually have happened anyway, and leaving has only accelerated it. All the fighting today between Brexiteers and Remainers achieves nothing. It didn’t matter which way we voted, it only really affected timescale. The same applies to many other issues that cause big trouble in the short term. Be adaptable, don’t worry, and you’ll be just fine.

7 Make up your own mind

As society and politics have become highly polarised, any form of absolute truth is becoming harder to find. Much of what you read has been spun to the left or right. You need to get information from several sources and learn to filter the bias, and then make up your own mind on what the truth is. Free thinking is increasingly rare but learning and practicing it means you’ll be able to make correct conclusions about the future while others are led astray. Don’t take anyone else’s word for things. Don’t be anyone’s useful idiot. Think for yourself.

8 Look out for your friends, family and community.

I’d overlooked an important tip in my original posting. As Jases commented sensibly, friends, family and community are the security that doesn’t disappear in troubled economic times. Independence is overrated. I can’t add much to that.

Google and the dangerous pursuit of ‘equality’

The world just got more dangerous, and I’m not talking about N Korea and Trump.

Google just sacked an employee because he openly suggested that men and women, (not all, but some, and there is an overlap, and …) might tend to have different preferences in some areas and that could (but not always, and only in certain cases, and we must always recognize and respect everyone and …) possibly account for some of the difference in numbers of men and women in certain roles (but there might be other causes too and obviously lots of discrimination and …. )

Yes, that’s what he actually said, but with rather more ifs and buts and maybes. He felt the need to wrap such an obvious statement in several kilometers thick of cotton wool so as not to offend the deliberately offended but nonetheless deliberate offense was taken and he is out on his ear.

Now, before you start thinking this is some right-wing rant, I feel obliged to point out just how progressive Futurizon is: 50% of all Futurizon owners and employees are female, all employees and owners have the same voting rights, 50% are immigrants and all are paid exactly the same and have the same size offices, regardless of dedication, ability, nature or quality or volume of output and regardless of their race, religion, beauty, shape, fitness, dietary preferences, baldness, hobbies or political views, even if they are Conservatives. All Futurizon offices are safe zones where employees may say anything they want of any level of truth, brilliance or stupidity and expect it to be taken as absolute fact and any consequential emotional needs to be fully met. No employee may criticize any other employee’s mouse mat, desk personalisation or screen wallpaper for obvious lack of taste. All employees are totally free to do anything they choose 100% of the time and can take as much leave as they want. All work is voluntary. All have the same right to respectfully request any other employee to make them coffee, tea or Pimms. All employees of all genders real or imagined are entitled to the same maternity and paternity rights, and the same sickness benefits, whether ill or not. In fact, Futurizon does not discriminate on any grounds whatsoever. We are proud to lead the world in non-discrimination. Unfortunately, our world-leading terms of employment mean that we can no longer afford to hire any new employees.

However, I note that Google has rather more power and influence than Futurizon so their policies count more. They appear (Google also has better lawyers than I can afford, so I must stress that all that follows is my personal opinion) to have firmly decided that diversity is all-important and they seem to want total equality of outcome. The view being expressed not just by Google but by huge swathes of angry protesters seems to be that any difference in workforce representation from that of the general population must arise from discrimination or oppression so must be addressed by positive action to correct it. There are apparently no statistically discernible differences in behavior between genders, or in job or role preference, so any you may have noticed over the time you’ve been alive is just your prejudice. Google says they fully support free speech and diversity of views, but expression of views is apparently only permitted as long as those views are authorized, on penalty of dismissal.

So unless I’m picking up totally the wrong end of the stick here, and I don’t do that often, only 13% of IT engineers are women, but internal policies must ensure that the proportion rises to 50%, whether women want to do that kind of work or not. In fact, nobody may question whether as many women want to work as IT engineers as men; it must now be taken as fact. By extension, since more women currently work in marketing, HR and PR, they must be substituted by men via positive action programs until men fill 50% of those roles. Presumably similar policies must also apply in medical bays for nursing and other staff there, and in construction teams for their nice new buildings. Ditto all other genders, races, religions; all groups must be protected and equalized to USA population proportions, apparently except those that don’t claim to hold sufficiently left-wing views, in which case it is seemingly perfectly acceptable to oppress, ostracize and even expel them.

In other words, freedom of choice and difference in ability, and more importantly freedom from discrimination, must be over-ruled in favor of absolute equality of diversity, regardless of financial or social cost, or impact on product or service quality. Not expressing full and enthusiastic left-wing compliance is seemingly just cause for dismissal.

So, why does this matter outside Google? Well, AI is developing very nicely. In fact, Google is one of the star players in the field right now. It is Google that will essentially decide how much of the AI around us is trained, how it learns, what it learns, what ‘knowledge’ it has of the world. Google will pick the content the AI learns from, and overrule or reeducate it if it draws any ‘wrong’ conclusions about the world, such as that more women than men want to be nurses or work in HR, or that more men than women want to be builders or engineers. A Google AI must presumably believe that the only differences between men and women are physical, unless their AI is deliberately excluded from the loudly declared corporate values and belief sets.

You should be very worried. Google’s values really matter. They have lots of influence on some of the basic tools of everyday life. Even outside their company, their AI tools and approaches will have strong influence on how other AI develops, determining operating systems and platforms, languages, mechanisms, interfaces, filters, even prejudices and that reach and influence is likely to increase. Their AI may well be in many self-driving cars, and if they have to make life or death decisions, the underlying value assumptions must feature in the algorithms. Soon companies will need AI that is more emotionally compliant. AI will use compliments or teasing or seduction or sarcasm or wit as marketing tools as well as just search engine positioning. Soon AI will use highly expressive faces with attractive voices, with attractive messages, tailored to appeal to you by pandering to your tastes and prejudices while thinking something altogether different. AI might be the person at the party that is all smiles and compliments, before going off to tell everyone else how awful it thinks you are. If you dare to say something not ‘authorized’, the ultra-smart AI all around you might treat you condescendingly, making you feel ashamed, ostracized, a dinosaur. Then it might secretly push you down a few pages in search results, or put a negative spin on text summaries about you, or exclude you from recommendations. Or it might do all the secret stuff while pretending it thinks you’re fantastic. Internal cultural policies in companies like Google today could soon be external social engineering to push the left-wing world the IT industry believes in – it isn’t just Google; Facebook and Twitter are also important and just as Left, though Amazon, Samsung, IBM and other AI players are less overtly politically biased, so far at least. Left wing policies generally cost a lot more, but Google and Facebook will presumably still expect other companies and people to pay the taxes to pay for it all. As their female staff gear up to fight them over pay differences between men and women for similar jobs, it often seems that Google’s holier-than-thou morality doesn’t quite make it as far as their finances.

Then it really starts being fun. We’ll soon have bacteria that can fabricate electronic circuits within themselves. Soon they’ll be able to power them too, giving the concept of smart yogurt. These bacteria could also have nanotechnology flagella to help them get around. We’ll soon have bacterial spies all over our environment, even on our skin, intercepting electronic signals that give away our thoughts. They’ll bring in data on everything that is said, everything that everyone even thinks or feels. Those bacteria will be directly connected into AI, in fact they’ll be part of it. They’ll be able to change things, to favor or punish according to whether they like what someone believes in or how they behave.

It isn’t just right-wing extremists that need to worry. I’m apparently Noveau Left – I score slightly left of center on political profiling tests, but I’m worried. A lot of this PC stuff seems extreme to me, sometimes just nonsense. Maybe it is, or maybe I should be lefter. But it’s not my choice. I don’t make the rules. Companies like Google make the rules, they even run the AI ethics groups. They decide much of what people see online, and even the meaning of the words. It’s very 1984-ish.

The trouble with the ‘echo chambers’ we heard about is that they soon normalize views to the loudest voices in those groups, and they don’t tend to be the moderates. We can expect it will go further to the extreme, not less. You probably aren’t left enough either. You should also be worried.

High-rise external evacuation

A quick googling turned up this great idea, using an escape chute attached to the top of a fire crane. The chute has a fireproof external layer and people slow or speed their descent in it simply by varying their posture. Read the pdf for more details:

http://www.escapeconsult.biz/download.php?module=prod&id=26

But the picture tells all you need to know. You can see it reaches very high, up to 100m with the tallest fire appliance.

It is a great idea, but you can still see how it could be improved, and the manufacturer may well already have better versions on the way.

Firstly, the truck is already leaning, even though it has extendable feet to increase the effective base area. This affects all free-standing fire rescue cranes and ladders (suspension ladders, or ladders able to lean against a wall obviously include other forces). Physics dictates that the center of gravity, with the evacuees included, must remain above the base or it will start to topple. The higher it reaches and the further from the truck, the harder that becomes, and the fewer people can simultaneously use the escape chute. Clearly if it is go even higher, we need to find new ways of keeping the base and center of gravity aligned, or to prevent it toppling by leaning the ladder securely against a sound piece of wall that isn’t above a fire.

One solution is obvious. Usually with a high-rise fire, a number of fire appliances would be there. By linking several appliances to the ladder in a stable pattern, the base area then becomes far larger, the entire area enclosed by the combined appliances. At the very least, they can spread out across a street, and sometimes as in the Grenfell Tower fire, there is a lot of nearby space to spread over. With a number of fire appliances, the crane is also not limited to the carrying capacity of a single appliance.

If theses are specialist hi-rise appliances, one or two would carry telescopic arms to support the rescue equipment, with one or more trucks using tension wires to increase the base area.

We also need to speed up entry to the chute and preferably make it accessible to more windows. The existing system has access via a small hole that might be slow to pass through, and challenging for larger people or those with less mobility. A funneled design would allow people to jump in from several windows or even drop from a floor above. Designing the access to prevent simultaneous arrivals at the chute is easy enough, even if several people jump in together

Also, it would be good if the chute could take evacuees away from the building and flames as fast as possible. Getting them to the ground is a lesser priority. Designing the funnel so it crosses several windows, with a steep slope away from the building (like an airplane escape slide) before it enters the downward chute would do that.

Another enhancement would be that instead of a broad funnel and single chute, a number of chutes could be suspended, with one for each window. Several people would be able to descend down different chutes at the same time. with a much broader base area, toppling risk would still be greatly reduced.

If a few support arms could be extended from the crane towards the building, that would provide extra stability until their strength (or building fabric) is compromised by fire. Further support might sometimes be available from window cleaning platform apparatus that could support the weight of the rescue chutes. If emergency escape chutes are built into the platforms could even make for an instant escape system before fire services arrive.

With these relatively straightforward enhancements, this evacuation system would be even better and would allow many people to escape who otherwise wouldn’t. OK, here’s a badly drawn pic:

Fighting fires on tall buildings

Fires in tall buildings over the years have led to many improvements in designs that prevent them from starting or from taking hold, and then if they do, to slow down their spread. Thankfully they are very rare. Existing technology is also very limiting. Ground-based fire appliances can only rescue people from lower floors and can only spray water onto a few floors above that. Fire extinguishers and internal sprinkler systems can obviously help put fires out or slow them spreading if they are actually present and if a few people are willing to take risks. That there were none in Grenfell Tower is simply beyond comprehension. Negligence, incompetence and complacency don’t begin to cover what needs to be said.

However brave firefighters are, and nobody doubts their bravery, they will need better tools to do the job, they are simply not equipped to fight fires in skyscrapers such as we just had. People should not die if there are potential solutions. Some are feasible now, but I am not aware of their use.

External fires such as the Grenfell Tower fire in London recently can’t be fought fully by either internal sprinklers or ground-based hoses. We need new techniques capable of dealing with such fires. A quick googling on future fire fighting is surprisingly disappointing. Even googling future firefighting doesn’t turn up much. Most is about fancy new imaging kit or protective uniforms with embedded sensors. All great stuff, but it won’t stop another Grenfell. I’m no expert in this field, so maybe I just haven’t used the right search terms, but it shouldn’t be as easy as it is to think up solutions that are not already in use. Maybe there are good reasons why the following are not in conspicuous use yet, but I can’t think of any. None of what follows is rocket science.

Water tanks on roofs could be attached to tubing around the perimeter of the building roof, and remotely operable valves could then be used by ground crews to release water in curtains down a side of the building. Obviously capacity is finite, but after initial quenching, continuous water flow from the roof would help, however little. Large tanks could be installed if none are present to add safety to existing building with poor cladding.

A way of getting firefighting kit high up is to use the platforms provided for window cleaning. They could be lowered to below the fire and fire pumps could be put on them, or at least anchorages for steerable hoses. This does not need firefighters to be on them, they could stay below. Clearly, roof kit might eventually fail and wires might break, but meanwhile they could help alleviate the problem and buy time at the very least. If firefighter lives are not put at risk to do it, there is little penalty.

External sprinkler tubes could also be fitted that could be connected to water supplies just below and external fire. This might buy one of two floors of relative safety above and greatly reduce smoke from outside. They don’t even need to have sophisticated nozzles. All they need to do to be useful is to spray some water on some of the external fire. Even if sub-optimal, they would buy a little time.

Drones offer one potential assistance route. Two types are relevant. One is very well known already and I would expect is already in use: Conventional drones can carry cameras and other sensors to higher floors to monitor what is happening, offer assisted networking for internal firefighters, offer firefighters alternative views of the action, enable local and accurate positioning systems, and provide computer-enhanced imaging to augmented reality helmets.

Secondly, high power tethered drones could be powered by connected electrics from the ground, so avoiding the battery and power limitations of conventional drones. They could reach high floors and stay there while supporting hoses from the ground or from lower floors, and might even be able to hold pumps if ground pressure can’t be made high enough. These would offer helicopter-type functionality or lifting capacity without having to go back and forth to refill with water or fuel. Cost would be relatively high, but fire departments would not need many.

Once an external wall is made free of fire, drones and window-cleaning platforms could be used in rescues.

Obviously a lot has been written about futuristic imaging, sensing, navigation and bio-sign monitoring for firefighters, as well as deploying robotic firefighters that can work down from roofs, relatively immune to fire and smoke, so I won’t bother repeating here what is already known well. What is apparently lacking sometimes is low-tech kit and making it actually present.

If these systems are already well known but there are good reasons why they don’t feature, then I have wasted your time.

 

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