Category Archives: travel and tourism

Can we automate restaurant reviews?

Reviews are an important part of modern life. People often consult reviews before buying things, visiting a restaurant or booking a hotel. There are even reviews on the best seats to choose on planes. When reviews are honestly given, they can be very useful to potential buyers, but what if they aren’t honestly give? What if they are glowing reviews written by friends of the restaurant owners, or scathing reviews written by friends of the competition? What if the service received was fine, but the reviewer simply didn’t like the race or gender of the person delivering it? Many reviews fall into these categories, but of course we can’t be sure how many, because when someone writes a review, we don’t know whether they were being honest or not, or whether they are biased or not. Adding a category of automated reviews would add credibility provided the technology is independent of the establishment concerned.

Face recognition software is now so good that it can read lips better than human lip reading experts. It can be used to detect emotions too, distinguishing smiles or frowns, and whether someone is nervous, stressed or relaxed. Voice recognition can discern not only words but changes in pitch and volume that might indicate their emotional context. Wearable devices can also detect emotions such as stress.

Given this wealth of technology capability, cameras and microphones in a restaurant could help verify human reviews and provide machine reviews. Using the checking in process it can identify members of a group that might later submit a review, and thus compare their review with video and audio records of the visit to determine whether it seems reasonably true. This could be done by machine using analysis of gestures, chat and facial expressions. If the person giving a poor review looked unhappy with the taste of the food while they were eating it, then it is credible. If their facial expression were of sheer pleasure and the review said it tasted awful, then that review could be marked as not credible, and furthermore, other reviews by that person could be called into question too. In fact, guests would in effect be given automated reviews of their credibility. Over time, a trust rating would accrue, that could be used to group other reviews by credibility rating.

Totally automated reviews could also be produced, by analyzing facial expressions, conversations and gestures across a whole restaurant full of people. These machine reviews would be processed in the cloud by trusted review companies and could give star ratings for restaurants. They could even take into account what dishes people were eating to give ratings for each dish, as well as more general ratings for entire chains.

Service could also be automatically assessed to some degree too. How long were the people there before they were greeted/served/asked for orders/food delivered. The conversation could even be automatically transcribed in many cases, so comments about rudeness or mistakes could be verified.

Obviously there are many circumstances where this would not work, but there are many where it could, so AI might well become an important player in the reviews business. At a time when restaurants are closing due to malicious bad reviews, or ripping people off in spite of poor quality thanks to dishonest positive reviews, then this might help a lot. A future where people are forced to be more honest in their reviews because they know that AI review checking could damage their reputation if they are found to have been dishonest might cause some people to avoid reviewing altogether, but it could improve the reliability of the reviews that still do happen.

Still not perfect, but it could be a lot better than today, where you rarely know how much a review can be trusted.

Advertisements

Sky-lines – The Solar Powered Future of Air Travel

High altitude solar array to power IT and propel planes

High altitude solar array to power IT and propel planes

A zero carbon air travel solution. Well, most of the bits would be made of carbon materials, but it wouldn’t emit any CO2.

The pic says it all. A linear solar farm suspended in the high atmosphere to provide an IT platform for sensors, comms and other functions often accomplished by low orbit satellite. It would float up there thanks to being fixed to a graphene foam base layer that can be made lighter than helium (my previous invention, see https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/01/05/could-graphene-foam-be-a-future-helium-substitute/ which has since been prototyped and proven to be extremely resilient to high pressures too). Ideally, it would go all the way around the world, in various inclinations at different altitudes to provide routes to many places. Carbon materials are also incredibly strong so the line can be made as strong as can reasonably be required.

The flotation layer also supports a hypersonic linear induction motor that could provide direct propulsion to a hypersonic glider or to electric fans on a powered plane. Obviously this could also provide a means of making extremely low earth orbit satellites that continuously circumnavigate the ring.

I know you’re asking already how the planes get up there. There are a few solutions. Tethers could come all the way to ground level to airports, and electric engines would be used to get to height where the plane would pick up a sled-link.

Alternatively, stronger links to the ground would allow planes to be pulled up by sleds, though this would likely be less feasible.

Power levels? Well, the engines on a Boeing 777 generate about 8.25MW. A high altitude solar cell, above clouds could generate 300W per square metre. So a 777 equivalent plane needs 55km of panels if the line is just one metre wide. That means planes need to be at least that distance apart, but since that equates to around a minute, that is no barrier at all.

If you still doubt this, the Hyperloop was just a crazy idea a century ago too.

Carbethium, a better-than-scifi material

How to build one of these for real:

Light_bridge

Halo light bridge, from halo.wikia.com

Or indeed one of these:

From halo.wikia.com

From halo.wikia.com

I recently tweeted that I had an idea how to make the glowy bridges and shields we’ve seen routinely in sci-fi games from Half Life to Destiny, the bridges that seem to appear in a second or two from nothing across a divide, yet are strong enough to drive tanks over, and able to vanish as quickly and completely when they are switched off. I woke today realizing that with a bit of work, that it could be the basis of a general purpose material to make the tanks too, and buildings and construction platforms, bridges, roads and driverless pod systems, personal shields and city defense domes, force fields, drones, planes and gliders, space elevator bases, clothes, sports tracks, robotics, and of course assorted weapons and weapon systems. The material would only appear as needed and could be fully programmable. It could even be used to render buildings from VR to real life in seconds, enabling at least some holodeck functionality. All of this is feasible by 2050.

Since it would be as ethereal as those Halo structures, I first wanted to call the material ethereum, but that name was already taken (for a 2014 block-chain programming platform, which I note could be used to build the smart ANTS network management system that Chris Winter and I developed in BT in 1993), and this new material would be a programmable construction platform so the names would conflict, and etherium is too close. Ethium might work, but it would be based on graphene and carbon nanotubes, and I am quite into carbon so I chose carbethium.

Ages ago I blogged about plasma as a 21st Century building material. I’m still not certain this is feasible, but it may be, and it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this blog anyway.

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

Around then I also blogged how to make free-floating battle drones and more recently how to make a Star Wars light-saber.

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/06/23/free-floating-ai-battle-drone-orbs-or-making-glyph-from-mass-effect/

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/11/25/how-to-make-a-star-wars-light-saber/

Carbethium would use some of the same principles but would add the enormous strength and high conductivity of graphene to provide the physical properties to make a proper construction material. The programmable matter bits and the instant build would use a combination of 3D interlocking plates, linear induction,  and magnetic wells. A plane such as a light bridge or a light shield would extend from a node in caterpillar track form with plates added as needed until the structure is complete. By reversing the build process, it could withdraw into the node. Bridges that only exist when they are needed would be good fun and we could have them by 2050 as well as the light shields and the light swords, and light tanks.

The last bit worries me. The ethics of carbethium are the typical mixture of enormous potential good and huge potential for abuse to bring death and destruction that we’re learning to expect of the future.

If we can make free-floating battle drones, tanks, robots, planes and rail-gun plasma weapons all appear within seconds, if we can build military bases and erect shield domes around them within seconds, then warfare moves into a new realm. Those countries that develop this stuff first will have a huge advantage, with the ability to send autonomous robotic armies to defeat enemies with little or no risk to their own people. If developed by a James Bond super-villain on a hidden island, it would even be the sort of thing that would enable a serious bid to take over the world.

But in the words of Professor Emmett Brown, “well, I figured, what the hell?”. 2050 values are not 2016 values. Our value set is already on a random walk, disconnected from any anchor, its future direction indicated by a combination of current momentum and a chaos engine linking to random utterances of arbitrary celebrities on social media. 2050 morality on many issues will be the inverse of today’s, just as today’s is on many issues the inverse of the 1970s’. Whatever you do or however politically correct you might think you are today, you will be an outcast before you get old: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/05/22/morality-inversion-you-will-be-an-outcast-before-youre-old/

We’re already fucked, carbethium just adds some style.

Graphene combines huge tensile strength with enormous electrical conductivity. A plate can be added to the edge of an existing plate and interlocked, I imagine in a hexagonal or triangular mesh. Plates can be designed in many diverse ways to interlock, so that rotating one engages with the next, and reversing the rotation unlocks them. Plates can be pushed to the forward edge by magnetic wells, using linear induction motors, using the graphene itself as the conductor to generate the magnetic field and the design of the structure of the graphene threads enabling the linear induction fields. That would likely require that the structure forms first out of graphene threads, then the gaps between filled by mesh, and plates added to that to make the structure finally solid. This would happen in thickness as well as width, to make a 3D structure, though a graphene bridge would only need to be dozens of atoms thick.

So a bridge made of graphene could start with a single thread, which could be shot across a gap at hundreds of meters per second. I explained how to make a Spiderman-style silk thrower to do just that in a previous blog:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/11/12/how-to-make-a-spiderman-style-graphene-silk-thrower-for-emergency-services/

The mesh and 3D build would all follow from that. In theory that could all happen in seconds, the supply of plates and the available power being the primary limiting factors.

Similarly, a shield or indeed any kind of plate could be made by extending carbon mesh out from the edge or center and infilling. We see that kind of technique used often in sci-fi to generate armor, from lost in Space to Iron Man.

The key components in carbetheum are 3D interlocking plate design and magnetic field design for the linear induction motors. Interlocking via rotation is fairly easy in 2D, any spiral will work, and the 3rd dimension is open to any building block manufacturer. 3D interlocking structures are very diverse and often innovative, and some would be more suited to particular applications than others. As for linear induction motors, a circuit is needed to produce the travelling magnetic well, but that circuit is made of the actual construction material. The front edge link between two wires creates a forward-facing magnetic field to propel the next plates and convey enough intertia to them to enable kinetic interlocks.

So it is feasible, and only needs some engineering. The main barrier is price and material quality. Graphene is still expensive to make, as are carbon nanotubes, so we won’t see bridges made of them just yet. The material quality so far is fine for small scale devices, but not yet for major civil engineering.

However, the field is developing extremely quickly because big companies and investors can clearly see the megabucks at the end of the rainbow. We will have almost certainly have large quantity production of high quality graphene for civil engineering by 2050.

This field will be fun. Anyone who plays computer games is already familiar with the idea. Light bridges and shields, or light swords would appear much as in games, but the material would likely  be graphene and nanotubes (or maybe the newfangled molybdenum equivalents). They would glow during construction with the plasma generated by the intense electric and magnetic fields, and the glow would be needed afterward to make these ultra-thin physical barriers clearly visible,but they might become highly transparent otherwise.

Assembling structures as they are needed and disassembling them just as easily will be very resource-friendly, though it is unlikely that carbon will be in short supply. We can just use some oil or coal to get more if needed, or process some CO2. The walls of a building could be grown from the ground up at hundreds of meters per second in theory, with floors growing almost as fast, though there should be little need to do so in practice, apart from pushing space vehicles up so high that they need little fuel to enter orbit. Nevertheless, growing a  building and then even growing the internal structures and even furniture is feasible, all using glowy carbetheum. Electronic soft fabrics, cushions and hard surfaces and support structures are all possible by combining carbon nanotubes and graphene and using the reconfigurable matter properties carbethium convents. So are visual interfaces, electronic windows, electronic wallpaper, electronic carpet, computers, storage, heating, lighting, energy storage and even solar power panels. So is all the comms and IoT and all the smart embdedded control systems you could ever want. So you’d use a computer with VR interface to design whatever kind of building and interior furniture decor you want, and then when you hit the big red button, it would appear in front of your eyes from the carbethium blocks you had delivered. You could also build robots using the same self-assembly approach.

If these structures can assemble fast enough, and I think they could, then a new form of kinetic architecture would appear. This would use the momentum of the construction material to drive the front edges of the surfaces, kinetic assembly allowing otherwise impossible and elaborate arches to be made.

A city transport infrastructure could be built entirely out of carbethium. The linear induction mats could grow along a road, connecting quickly to make a whole city grid. Circuit design allows the infrastructure to steer driverless pods wherever they need to go, and they could also be assembled as required using carbethium. No parking or storage is needed, as the pod would just melt away onto the surface when it isn’t needed.

I could go to town on military and terrorist applications, but more interesting is the use of the defense domes. When I was a kid, I imagined having a house with a defense dome over it. Lots of sci-fi has them now too. Domes have a strong appeal, even though they could also be used as prisons of course. A supply of carbetheum on the city edges could be used to grow a strong dome in minutes or even seconds, and there is no practical limit to how strong it could be. Even if lasers were used to penetrate it, the holes could fill in in real time, replacing material as fast as it is evaporated away.

Anyway, lots of fun. Today’s civil engineering projects like HS2 look more and more primitive by the day, as we finally start to see the true potential of genuinely 21st century construction materials. 2050 is not too early to expect widespread use of carbetheum. It won’t be called that – whoever commercializes it first will name it, or Google or MIT will claim to have just invented it in a decade or so, so my own name for it will be lost to personal history. But remember, you saw it here first.

Future air travel

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

Aircraft skin design – video panels

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

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

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

Integration with self-driving cars – terminal-free flying

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

Stage 1

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

Stage 2

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

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

Stage 3

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

Stage 4

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

Balloon trips and cruises

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

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

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

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

Air fuel

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

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

So, no change here then.

Threats

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

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

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

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

New business models

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