Proposed Kent solar farm is green lunacy

Solar farms should be placed in desert regions that have low value for growing food, and relatively low value to nature. There are plans to install a massive solar farm in nice green Kent, where it is occasionally a little bit sunny. That strikes me as lunacy, and even some green groups agree and are campaigning against it.

http://www.kentonline.co.uk/faversham/news/proposal-for-solar-farm-site-increases-to-1-000-acres-184240/

The project is apparently being led by Hive Energy and Wirsol. I have been in contact with Tesla, who say “Tesla is not in conversations with any parties with regards to this project”.

Land is limited and we must use it sensibly

Nature often takes a battering when money is available, but a rich country should protect nature and ensure that some appropriate spaces are set aside. It is right to resist attempts to reassign such land to other purposes, especially when there area obvious alternatives. In this case, the land in question is mainly natural habitat, but other green areas are used for food production.

World population is growing, with another 3 billion mouths to feed mid-century. Agricultural technology will improve output per hectare and food trends may reduce the amount of meat consumption, but we should be able to feed everyone just fine even with 10 or 11 Billion people, but it will require good land stewardship. Prime agricultural land should be used mainly to grow crops. Some will be needed for buildings and roads of course, and we will want to have extensive nature reserves too. When we can produce more food than people need, we can return land to nature, but we should certainly not waste it by using it for solar farms when there are far better places to put them.

Using agricultural land for solar farms increases food costs by reducing food supply, hurting the world’s poorest people. This is also true of using land to grow biofuels, essentially an extraordinarily inefficient form of indirect solar power.

Secondly, the main current argument for solar power is to save CO2 emissions. If you read my blogs regularly, you’ll know I think that claims of human-related CO2-induced global warming catastrophe are greatly exaggerated, but there is some effect so we should not be complacent, and we do still need to be careful with emission levels. I’ve always been in favor of moving to solar and fusion as very long-term solutions. Fusion won’t be a big player until the 2040s. One day, solar will be cheaper than using shale gas, the most environmentally friendly fossil fuel solution with only half the CO2 output for a unit of energy compared to oil and coal, but that day is still far in the future. The more energy a panel can make, the more CO2 it saves. We only have one atmosphere, and a ton saved anywhere is a ton saved globally. It makes sense to put them in places where there is a lot of sun. Often that means deserts, which obviously have very little value for growing crops and support relatively low levels of life for the same reason. Putting a panel in a desert produces far more energy for far less environmental cost. A solar panel in the Sahara would make 5 times more energy than one in Kent, without reducing world food output at all. 

Sahara solar

Furthermore, many desert areas are home to poor people, who might welcome extra income from housing and maintaining panels for a cut of the revenue they make. Dust and sand would make maintenance a regular issue, but providing decent income for regular work for people with few other options makes good economic sense. Doing so would also help subsidize other infrastructure badly needed that might also improve local quality of life in those areas.

Finally, by providing extra income to deprived areas of the world, geo-political tensions may reduce somewhat.

All in, it makes far more sense socially, economically, politically, and environmentally to provide solar power from desert areas than from prime agricultural land or natural habitat.

 

 

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Enhanced cellular blockchain

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

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

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

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

Key Advantages

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

Associated mechanisms

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

Financial use

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

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

Monopoly and diversity laws should surely apply to political views too

With all the calls for staff diversity and equal representation, one important area of difference has so far been left unaddressed: political leaning. In many organisations, the political views of staff don’t matter. Nobody cares about the political views of staff in a double glazing manufacturer because they are unlikely to affect the qualities of a window. However, in an organisation that has a high market share in TV, social media or internet search, or that is a government department or a public service, political bias can have far-reaching effects. If too many of its staff and their decisions favor a particular political view, it is danger of becoming what is sometimes called ‘the deep state’. That is, their everyday decisions and behaviors might privilege one group over another. If most of their colleagues share similar views, they might not even be aware of their bias, because they are the norm in their everyday world. They might think they are doing their job without fear of favor but still strongly preference one group of users over another.

Staff bias doesn’t only an organisation’s policies, values and decisions. It also affects recruitment and promotion, and can result in increasing concentration of a particular world view until it becomes an issue. When a vacancy appears at board level, remaining board members will tend to promote someone who thinks like themselves. Once any leaning takes hold, near monopoly can quickly result.

A government department should obviously be free of bias so that it can carry out instructions from a democratically elected government with equal professionalism regardless of its political flavor. Employees may be in positions where they can allocate resources or manpower more to one area than another, or provide analysis to ministers, or expedite or delay a communication, or emphasize or dilute a recommendation in a survey, or may otherwise have some flexibility in interpreting instructions and even laws. It is important they do so without political bias so transparency of decision-making for external observers is needed along with systems and checks and balances to prevent and test for bias or rectify it when found. But even if staff don’t deliberately abuse their positions to deliberately obstruct or favor, if a department has too many staff from one part of the political spectrum, normalization of views can again cause institutional bias and behavior. It is therefore important for government departments and public services to have work-forces that reflect the political spectrum fairly, at all levels. A department that implements a policy from a government of one flavor but impedes a different one from a new government of opposite flavor is in strong need of reform and re-balancing. It has become a deep state problem. Bias could be in any direction of course, but any public sector department must be scrupulously fair in its implementation of the services it is intended to provide.

Entire professions can be affected. Bias can obviously occur in any direction but over many decades of slow change, academia has become dominated by left-wing employees, and primary teaching by almost exclusively female ones. If someone spends most of their time with others who share the same views, those views can become normalized to the point that a dedicated teacher might think they are delivering a politically balanced lesson that is actually far from it. It is impossible to spend all day teaching kids without some personal views and values rub off on them. The young have always been slightly idealistic and left leaning – it takes years of adult experience of non-academia to learn the pragmatic reality of implementing that idealism, during which people generally migrate rightwards -but with a stronger left bias ingrained during education, it takes longer for people to unlearn naiveté and replace it with reality. Surely education should be educating kids about all political viewpoints and teaching them how to think so they can choose for themselves where to put their allegiance, not a long process of political indoctrination?

The media has certainly become more politically crystallized and aligned in the last decade, with far fewer media companies catering for people across the spectrum. There are strongly left-wing and right-wing papers, magazines, TV and radio channels or shows. People have a free choice of which papers to read, and normal monopoly laws work reasonably well here, with proper checks when there is a proposed takeover that might result in someone getting too much market share. However, there are still clear examples of near monopoly in other places where fair representation is particularly important. In spite of frequent denials of any bias, the BBC for example was found to have a strong pro-EU/Remain bias for its panel on its flagship show Question Time:

https://iea.org.uk/media/iea-analysis-shows-systemic-bias-against-leave-supporters-on-flagship-bbc-political-programmes/

The BBC does not have a TV or radio monopoly but it does have a very strong share of influence. Shows such as Question Time can strongly influence public opinion so if biased towards one viewpoint could be considered as campaigning for that cause, though their contributions would lie outside electoral commission scrutiny of campaign funding. Many examples of BBC bias on a variety of social and political issues exist. It often faces accusations of bias from every direction, sometimes unfairly, so again proper transparency must exist so that independent external groups can appeal for change and be heard fairly, and change enforced when necessary. The BBC is in a highly privileged position, paid for by a compulsory license fee on pain of imprisonment, and also in a socially and politically influential position. It is doubly important that it proportionally represents the views of the people rather than acting as an activist group using license-payer funds to push the political views of the staff, engaging in their own social engineering campaigns, or otherwise being propaganda machines.

As for private industry, most isn’t in a position of political influence, but some areas certainly are. Social media have enormous power to influence the views its users are exposed to, choosing to filter or demote material they don’t approve of, as well as providing a superb activist platform. Search companies can choose to deliver results according to their own agendas, with those they support featuring earlier or more prominently than those they don’t. If social media or search companies provide different service or support or access according to political leaning of the customer then they can become part of the deep state. And again, with normalization creating the risk of institutional bias, the clear remedy is to ensure that these companies have a mixture of staff representative of social mix. They seem extremely enthusiastic about doing that for other forms of diversity. They need to apply similar enthusiasm to political diversity too.

Achieving it won’t be easy. IT companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter currently have a strong left leaning, though the problem would be just as bad if it were to swing the other direction. Given the natural monopoly tendency in each sector, social media companies should be politically neutral, not deep state companies.

AI being developed to filter posts or decide how much attention they get must also be unbiased. AI algorithmic bias could become a big problem, but it is just as important that bias is judged by neutral bodies, not by people who are biased themselves, who may try to ensure that AI shares their own leaning. I wrote about this issue here: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/11/16/fake-ai/

But what about government? Today’s big issue in the UK is Brexit. In spite of all its members being elected or reelected during the Brexit process, the UK Parliament itself nevertheless has 75% of MPs to defend the interests of the 48% voting Remain  and only 25% to represent the other 52%. Remainers get 3 times more Parliamentary representation than Brexiters. People can choose who they vote for, but with only candidate available from each party, voters cannot choose by more than one factor and most people will vote by party line, preserving whatever bias exists when parties select which candidates to offer. It would be impossible to ensure that every interest is reflected proportionately but there is another solution. I suggested that scaled votes could be used for some issues, scaling an MP’s vote weighting by the proportion of the population supporting their view on that issue:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/05/08/achieving-fair-representation-in-the-new-uk-parliament/

Like company boards, once a significant bias in one direction exists, political leaning tends to self-reinforce to the point of near monopoly. Deliberate procedures need to be put in place to ensure equality or representation, even when people are elected. Obviously people who benefit from current bias will resist change, but everyone loses if democracy cannot work properly.

The lack of political diversity in so many organisations is becoming a problem. Effective government may be deliberately weakened or amplified by departments with their own alternative agendas, while social media and media companies may easily abuse their enormous power to push their own sociopolitical agendas. Proper functioning of democracy requires that this problem is fixed, even if a lot of people like it the way it is.

Thoughts on declining male intelligence

I’ve seen a few citations this week of a study showing a 3 IQ point per decade drop in men’s intelligence levels: https://www.sciencealert.com/iq-scores-falling-in-worrying-reversal-20th-century-intelligence-boom-flynn-effect-intelligence

I’m not qualified to judge the merits of the study, but it is interesting if true, and since it is based on studying 730,000 men and seems to use a sensible methodology, it does sound reasonable.

I wrote last November about the potential effects of environmental exposure to hormone disruptors on intelligence, pointing out that if estrogen-mimicking hormones cause a shift in IQ distribution, this would be very damaging even if mean IQ stays the same. Although male and female IQs are about the same, male IQs are less concentrated around the mean, so there are more men than women at each extreme.

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/11/13/we-need-to-stop-xenoestrogen-pollution/

From a social equality point of view of course, some might consider it a good thing if men’s IQ range is caused to align more closely with the female one. I disagree and suggested some of the consequences that should be expected if male IQ distribution were to compress towards the female one and managed to confirm many of them, so it does look like it is already a problem.

This new study suggests a shift of the whole distribution downwards, which could actually be in addition to redistribution, making it even worse. The study doesn’t seem to mention distribution. They do show that the drop in mean IQ must be caused by environmental or lifestyle changes, both of which we have seen in recent decades.

IQ distribution matters more than the mean. Those at the very top of the range contribute many times more to progress than those further down. Magnitude of contribution is very dependent on those last few IQ points. I can verify that from personal experience. I have a virus that causes occasional periods of nerve inflammation, and as well as causing problems with my peripheral motor activity, it seems to strongly affect my thinking ability and comprehension. During those periods I generate very few new ideas or inventions and far fewer worthwhile insights than when I am on form. I sometimes have to wait until I recover before I can understand my own previous ideas and add to them. You’ll see it in numbers (and probably quality) of blog posts for example. I really feel a big difference in my thinking ability, and I hate feeling dumber than usual. Perhaps people don’t notice if they’ve always had the reduced IQ so have never experienced being less smart than they were, but my own experience is that perceptive ability and level of consciousness are strong contributors to personal well-being.

As for society as a whole, AI might come to the rescue at least in part. Just in time perhaps, since we’re creating the ability for computers to assist us and up-skill us just as we see numbers of people with the very highest IQ ranges drop. A bit like watching a new generation come on stream and take the reins as we age and take a back seat. On the other hand, it does bring forwards the time where computers overtake humans, humans become more dependent on machines, and machines become more of an existential threat as well as our babysitters.

Will urbanization continue or will we soon reach peak city?

For a long time, people have been moving from countryside into cities. The conventional futurist assumption is that this trend will continue, with many mega-cities, some with mega-buildings. I’ve consulted occasionally on future buildings and future cities from a technological angle, but I’ve never really challenged the assumption that urbanization will continue. It’s always good  to challenge our assumptions occasionally, as things can change quite rapidly.

There are forces in both directions. Let’s list those that support urbanisation first.

People are gregarious. They enjoy being with other people. They enjoy eating out and having coffees with friends. They like to go shopping. They enjoy cinemas and theatre and art galleries and museums. They still have workplaces. Many people want to live close to these facilities, where public transport is available or driving times are relatively short. There are exceptions of course, but these still generally apply.

Even though many people can and do work from home sometimes, most of them still go to work, where they actually meet colleagues, and this provides much-valued social contact, and in spite of recent social trends, still provides opportunities to meet new friends and partners. Similarly, they can and do talk to friends via social media or video calls, but still enjoy getting together for real.

Increasing population produces extra pressure on the environment, and governments often try to minimize it by restricting building on green field land. Developers are strongly encouraged to build on brown field sites as far as possible.

Now the case against.

Truly Immersive Interaction

Talking on the phone, even to a tiny video image, is less emotionally rich than being there with someone. It’s fine for chats in between physical meetings of course, but the need for richer interaction still requires ‘being there’. Augmented reality will soon bring headsets that provide high quality 3D life-sized images of the person, and some virtual reality kit will even allow analogs of physical interaction via smart gloves or body suits, making social comms a bit better. Further down the road, active skin will enable direct interaction with the peripheral nervous system to produce exactly the same nerve signals as an actual hug or handshake or kiss, while active contact lenses will provide the same resolution as your retina wherever you gaze. The long term is therefore communication which has the other person effectively right there with you, fully 3D, fully rendered to the capability of your eyes, so you won’t be able to tell they aren’t. If you shake hands or hug or kiss, you’ll feel it just the same as if they were there too. You will still know they are not actually there, so it will never be quite as emotionally rich as if they were, but it can get pretty close. Close enough perhaps that it won’t really matter to most people most of the time that it’s virtual.

In the same long term, many AIs will have highly convincing personalities, some will even have genuine emotions and be fully conscious. I blogged recently on how that might happen if you don’t believe it’s possible:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2018/06/04/biomimetic-insights-for-machine-consciousness/

None of the technology required for this is far away, and I believe a large IT company could produce conscious machines with almost human-level AI within a couple of years of starting the project. It won’t happen until they do, but when one starts trying seriously to do it, it really won’t be long. That means that as well as getting rich emotional interaction from other humans via networks, we’ll also get lots from AI, either in our homes, or on the cloud, and some will be in robots in our homes too.

This adds up to a strong reduction in the need to live in a city for social reasons.

Going to cinemas, theatre, shopping etc will also all benefit from this truly immersive interaction. As well as that, activities that already take place in the home, such as gaming will also advance greatly into more emotionally and sensory intensive experiences, along with much enhanced virtual tourism and virtual world tourism, virtual clubbing & pubbing, which barely even exist yet but could become major activities in the future.

Socially inclusive self-driving cars

Some people have very little social interaction because they can’t drive and don’t live close to public transport stops. In some rural areas, buses may only pass a stop once a week. Our primitive 20th century public transport systems thus unforgivably exclude a great many people from social inclusion, even though the technology needed to solve that has existed for many years.  Leftist value systems that much prefer people who live in towns or close to frequent public transport over everyone else must take a lot of the blame for the current epidemic of loneliness. It is unreasonable to expect those value systems to be replaced by more humane and equitable ones any time soon, but thankfully self-driving cars will bypass politicians and bureaucrats and provide transport for everyone. The ‘little old lady’ who can’t walk half a mile to wait 20 minutes in freezing rain for an uncomfortable bus can instead just ask her AI to order a car and it will pick her up at her front door and take her to exactly where she wants to go, then do the same for her return home whenever she wants. Once private sector firms like Uber provide cheap self-driving cars, they will be quickly followed by other companies, and later by public transport providers. Redundant buses may finally become extinct, replaced by better socially inclusive transport, large fleets of self-driving or driverless vehicles. People will be able to live anywhere and still be involved in society. As attendance at social events improves, so they will become feasible even in small communities, so there will be less need to go into a town to find one. Even political involvement might increase. Loneliness will decline as social involvement increases, and we’ll see many other social problems decline too.

Distribution drones

We hear a lot about upcoming redundancy caused by AI, but far less about the upside. AI might mean someone is no longer needed in an office, but it also makes it easier to set up a company and run it, taking what used to be just a hobby and making it into a small business. Much of the everyday admin and logistics can be automated Many who would never describe themselves as entrepreneurs might soon be making things and selling them from home and this AI-enabled home commerce will bring in the craft society. One of the big problems is getting a product to the customer. Postal services and couriers are usually expensive and very likely to lose or damage items. Protecting objects from such damage may require much time and expense packing it. Even if objects are delivered, there may be potential fraud with no-payers. Instead of this antiquated inefficient and expensive system, drone delivery could collect an object and take it to a local customer with minimal hassle and expense. Block-chain enables smart contracts that can be created and managed by AI and can directly link delivery to payment, with fully verified interaction video if necessary. If one happens, the other happens. A customer might return a damaged object, but at least can’t keep it and deny receipt. Longer distance delivery can still use cheap drone pickup to take packages to local logistics centers in smart crates with fully block-chained g-force and location detectors that can prove exactly who damaged it and where. Drones could be of any size, and of course self-driving cars or pods can easily fill the role too if smaller autonomous drones are inappropriate.

Better 3D printing technology will help to accelerate the craft economy, making it easier to do crafts by upskilling people and filling in some of their skill gaps. Someone with visual creativity but low manual skill might benefit greatly from AI model creation and 3D printer manufacture, followed by further AI assistance in marketing, selling and distribution. 3D printing might also reduce the need to go to town to buy some things.

Less shopping in high street

This is already obvious. Online shopping will continue to become a more personalized and satisfying experience, smarter, with faster delivery and easier returns, while high street decline accelerates. Every new wave of technology makes online better, and high street stores seem unable or unwilling to compete, in spite of my wonderful ‘6s guide’:

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

Those that are more agile still suffer decline of shopper numbers as the big stores fail to attract them so even smart stores will find it harder to survive.

Improving agriculture

Farming technology has doubled the amount of food production per hectare in the last few decades. That may happen again by mid-century. Meanwhile, the trend is towards higher vegetable and lower meat consumption. Even with an increased population, less land will be needed to grow our food. As well as reducing the need to protect green belts, that will also allow some of our countryside to be put under better environmental stewardship programs, returning much of it to managed nature. What countryside we have will be healthier and prettier, and people will be drawn to it more.

Improving social engineering

Some objections to green-field building can be reduced by making better use of available land. Large numbers of new homes are needed and they will certainly need some green field to be used, but given the factors already listed above, a larger number of smaller communities might be better approach. Amazingly, in spite of decades of dating technology proving that people can be matched up easily using AI, there is still no obvious use of similar technology to establish new communities by blending together people who are likely to form effective communities. Surely it must be feasible to advertise a new community building program that wants certain kinds of people in it – even an Australian style points system might work sometimes. Unless sociologists have done nothing for the past decades, they must surely know what types of people work well together by now? If the right people live close to each other, social involvement will be high, loneliness low, health improved, care costs minimized, the need for longer distance travel reduced and environmental impact minimized. How hard can it be?

Improving building technology such as 3D printing and robotics will allow more rapid construction, so that when people are ready and willing to move, property suited to them can be available soon.

Lifestyle changes also mean that homes don’t need to be as big. A phone today does what used to need half a living room of technology and space. With wall-hung displays and augmented reality, decor can be partly virtual, and even a 450 sq ft apartment is fine as a starter place, half as big as was needed a few decades ago, and that could be 3D printed and kitted out in a few days.

Even demographic changes favor smaller communities. As wealth increases, people have smaller families, i.e fewer kids. That means fewer years doing the school run, so less travel, less need to be in a town. Smaller schools in smaller communities can still access specialist lessons via the net.

Increasing wealth also encourages and enables people to a higher quality of life. People who used to live in a crowded city street might prefer a more peaceful and spacious existence in a more rural setting and will increasingly be able to afford to move. Short term millennial frustrations with property prices won’t last, as typical 2.5% annual growth more than doubles wealth by 2050 (though automation and its assorted consequences will impact on the distribution of that wealth).

Off-grid technology

Whereas one of the main reasons to live in urban areas was easy access to telecomms, energy and water supply and sewerage infrastructure, all of these can now be achieved off-grid. Mobile networks provide even broadband access to networks. Solar or wind provide easy energy supply. Water can be harvested out of the air even in arid areas (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-5840997/The-solar-powered-humidity-harvester-suck-drinkable-water-AIR.html) and human and pet waste can be used as biomass for energy supply too, leaving fertilizer as residue.

There are also huge reasons that people won’t want to live in cities, and they will also cause deurbansisation.

The biggest by far in the problem of epidemics. As antibiotic resistance increases, disease will be a bigger problem. We may find good antibiotics alternatives but we may not. If not, then we may see some large cities where disease runs rampant and kills hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps even millions. Many scientists have listed pandemics among their top ten threats facing humanity. Obviously, being in a large city will incur a higher risk of becoming a victim, so once one or two incidents have occurred, many people will look for options to leave cities everywhere. Linked to this is bioterrorism, where the disease is deliberate, perhaps created in a garden shed by someone who learned the craft in one of today’s bio-hacking clubs. Disease might be aimed at a particular race, gender or lifestyle group or it may simply be designed to be as contagious and lethal as possible to everyone.

I’m still not saying we won’t have lots of people living in cities. I am saying that more people will feel less need to live in cities and will instead be able to find a small community where they can be happier in the countryside. Consequently, many will move out of cities, back to more rural living in smaller, friendlier communities that improving technology makes even more effective.

Urbanization will slow down, and may well go into reverse. We may reach peak city soon.

 

 

Biomimetic insights for machine consciousness

About 20 years ago I gave my first talk on how to achieve consciousness in machines, at a World Future Society conference, and went on to discuss how we would co-evolve with machines. I’ve lectured on machine consciousness hundreds of times but never produced any clear slides that explain my ideas properly. I thought it was about time I did. My belief is that today’s deep neural networks using feed-forward processing with back propagation training can not become conscious. No digital algorithmic neural network can, even though they can certainly produce extremely good levels of artificial intelligence. By contrast, nature also uses neurons but does produce conscious machines such as humans easily. I think the key difference is not just that nature uses analog adaptive neural nets rather than digital processing (as I believe Hans Moravec first insighted, a view that I readily accepted) but also that nature uses large groups of these analog neurons that incorporate feedback loops that act both as a sort of short term memory and provide time to sense the sensing process as it happens, a mechanism that can explain consciousness. That feedback is critically important in the emergence of consciousness IMHO. I believe that if the neural network AI people stop barking up the barren back-prop tree and start climbing the feedback tree, we could have conscious machines in no time, but Moravec is still probably right that these need to be analog to enable true real-time processing as opposed to simulation of that.

I may be talking nonsense of course, but here are my thoughts, finally explained as simply and clearly as I can. These slides illustrate only the simplest forms of consciousness. Obviously our brains are highly complex and evolved many higher level architectures, control systems, complex senses and communication, but I think the basic foundations of biomimetic machine consciousness can be achieved as follows:

That’s it. I might produce some more slides on higher level processing such as how concepts might emerge, and why in the long term, AIs will have to become hive minds. But they can wait for later blogs.

Self-driving bicycles

I just saw a video of a Google self-driving bike on Linked-In. It is a 2017 April Fool prank, but that just means it is fake in this instance, it doesn’t mean it couldn’t be done in real life. It is fun to watch anyway.

https://www.psfk.com/2017/04/google-prank-pushes-for-self-driving-bicycles-in-amsterdam.html

In 2005 I invented a solution for pulling bikes along on linear induction motor bile lanes, pulling a metal plate attached (via a hinged rod to prevent accidents) to the front forks.

The original idea was simply that the bike would be pulled along, but it would still need a rider to balance it. However, with a fairly small modification, it could self balance. All it needs is to use plates on both sides, so that the magnetic force can be varied to pull one side more than the other. If the force is instantly variable, that could be used in a simple control system both to keep the bike vertical when going straight and to steer it round bends as required, as illustrated on the right of the diagram. Therefore the bike could be self-driving.

Self-driving bikes would be good for lazy riders who don’t even want the effort of steering, but their auto-routing capability would also help any rider who simply wants navigation service, and presumably some riders with disabilities that make balancing difficult, and of course the propulsion is potentially welcome for any cyclist who doesn’t want to arrive sweaty or who is tiring of a long hill. Best of all, the bikes could find their own way to a bike park when not needed, balancing the numbers of available bikes according to local demand at any time.

 

AI that talks to us could quickly become problematic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Futurist memories: The leisure society and the black box economy

Things don’t always change as fast as we think. This is a piece I wrote in 1994 looking forward to a fully automated ‘black box economy, a fly-by-wire society. Not much I’d change if I were writing it new today. Here:

The black box economy is a strictly theoretical possibility, but may result where machines gradually take over more and more roles until the whole economy is run by machines, with everything automated. People could be gradually displaced by intelligent systems, robots and automated machinery. If this were to proceed to the ultimate conclusion, we could have a system with the same or even greater output as the original society, but with no people involved. The manufacturing process could thus become a ‘black box’. Such a system would be so machine controlled that humans would not easily be able to pick up the pieces if it crashed – they would simply not understand how it works, or could not control it. It would be a fly-by-wire society.

The human effort could be reduced to simple requests. When you want a new television, a robot might come and collect the old one, recycling the materials and bringing you a new one. Since no people need be involved and the whole automated system could be entirely self-maintaining and self-sufficient there need be no costs. This concept may be equally applicable in other sectors, such as services and information – ultimately producing more leisure time.

Although such a system is theoretically possible – energy is free in principle, and resources are ultimately a function of energy availability – it is unlikely to go quite this far. We may go some way along this road, but there will always be some jobs that we don’t want to automate, so some people may still work. Certainly, far fewer people would need to work in such a system, and other people could spend their time in more enjoyable pursuits, or in voluntary work. This could be the leisure economy we were promised long ago. Just because futurists predicted it long ago and it hasn’t happened yet does not mean it never will. Some people would consider it Utopian, while others possibly a nightmare, it’s just a matter of taste.

Interstellar travel: quantum ratchet drive

Introductory waffle & background state of the art bit

My last blog included a note on my Mars commute system, which can propel spacecraft with people in up to 600km/s. Unfortunately, although 1000 times faster than a bullet, that is still only 0.2% of light speed and it would take about 2000 years to get to our nearest star at that speed, so we need a better solution. Star Trek uses warp drive to go faster than light, and NASA’s Alcubierre drive is the best approximation we have to that so far:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcubierre_drive

but smarter people than me say it probably won’t work, and almost certainly won’t work any time soon:

https://jalopnik.com/the-painful-truth-about-nasas-warp-drive-spaceship-from-1590330763

If it does work, it will need to use negative energy extracted via the Casimir effect, and if that works, so will my own invention, the Space Anchor:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/06/14/how-the-space-anchor-works/

The Space Anchor would also allow space dogfights like you see in Star Wars. Unless you’re a pedant like me, you probably never think about how space fighters turn in the vacuum of space when you’re watching movies, but wings obviously won’t work well with no atmosphere, and you’d need a lot of fuel to eject out the back at high thrust to turn otherwise, but the space anchor actually locks on to a point in space-time and you can pivot around it to reverse direction without using fuel, thanks to conservation of angular momentum. Otherwise, the anchor drifts with ‘local’ space time expansion and contraction, which essentially creates relativity based ‘currents’ that can pull a spacecraft along at high speed. But enough about Space Anchors. Read my novel Space Anchor to see how much fun they could be.

Space anchors might not work, being only semi-firm sci-fi based at least partly on hypothetical physics. If they don’t work, and warp drive won’t work without using massive amounts of dark energy that I don’t believe exists either, then we’re left with solar sails, laser sails, and assorted ion drives. Solar sails won’t work well too far from a star. Lasers that can power a spacecraft well outside a star system sound expensive and unworkable and the light sails that capture the light mean this could only get to about 10% light speed. Ion drives work OK for modest speeds if you have an on-board power source and some stuff to thrust out the back to get Newtonian reaction. Fancy shaped resonant cavity thrusters try to cheat maths and physics to get a reaction by using special shapes of microwave chambers,

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RF_resonant_cavity_thruster

but I’d personally put these ‘Em-drives’ in the basket with cold fusion and perpetual motion machines. Sure, there have been experiments that supposedly show they work, but so do many experiments for cold fusion and perpetual motion machines, and we know those results are just experimental or interpretational errors. Of the existing techniques that don’t contradict known physics or rely on unverified and debatable hypotheses, the light sails are best and get 10% of light speed at high expense.

A few proposed thruster-based systems use particles collected from the not-quite-empty space as the fuel source and propellant. Again, if we stretch the Casimir effect theory to near breaking point, it may be possible to use virtual particles popping in and out of existence as propellant by allowing them to appear and thrusting them before they vanish, the quantum thruster drive. My own variant of this solution is to use Casimir combs with oscillating interleaving nano-teeth that separate virtual particles before they can annihilate to prolong that time enough to make it feasible. I frankly have no idea whether this would actually work.

Better still would be if we could use a form of propulsion that doesn’t need to throw matter backwards to get reactionary force forwards. If magical microwave chambers and warp drives are no use, how about this new idea of mine:

The Quantum Ratchet Drive

You can explore other theoretical interstellar drives via Google or Wikipedia, but you won’t find my latest idea there – the Quantum Ratchet Drive. I graduated in Theoretical Physics, but this drive is more in the Hypothetical Physics Department, along with my explanations for inflation, dark matter and novel states of matter. That doesn’t mean it is wrong or won’t work though, just that I can’t prove it will work yet. Anyway, faint heart ne’er won fair maid.

You have seen pics of trains that climb steep slopes using a rack and pinion system, effectively gear wheels on a toothed rail so that they don’t slip (not the ones that use a cable). I originally called my idea the quantum rack and pinion drive because it works in a similar way, but actually, the more I think about it, the more appropriate is the analogy with a ratchet, using a gear tooth as a sort of anchor to pull against to get the next little bit of progress. It relies on the fact that fields are quantized and any system will exist in one state and then move up or down to the next quantum state, it can’t stay in between. At this point I feel I need another 50 IQ points to grasp a very slippery idea, so be patient – this is an idea in early stages of development. I’m basically trying to harness the physics that causes particles to switch quantum states, looking at the process in which quantum states change, nature’s ‘snap to grid’ approach, to make a propulsion system out of it.

If we generate an external field that interacts with the field in a nearby microscopic region of space in front of our craft then as the total field approaches a particular quantum threshold, nature will drag that region to the closest quantum state, hopefully creating a tiny force that drags the system to that state. In essence, the local quantum structure becomes a grid onto which the craft can lock. At very tiny scales obviously, but if you add enough tiny distances you eventually get big ones.

But space doesn’t have a fixed grid does it? If we just generate any old field any which way in front of our craft, no progress will happen because nature will be quite happy to have those states in any location in space so no force of movement will be generated. HOWEVER… suppose space did have such a grid, and we could use interaction of the quantum states in the grid cells and our generated field. Then we could get what we want, a toothed rail with which our gearwheels can engage.

So we just need a system that assigns local quantum states to microscopic space regions and that is our rack, then we apply a field to our pinion that is not quite enough to become that state, but is closer than any other one. At some point, there will be a small thrust towards the next state so that it can reach a local minimum energy level. Those tiny thrusts would add up.

We could use any kind of field that our future tech can generate. Our craft would have two field emitters. One produces a nice tidy waveform that maps quantum states onto the space just in front of our craft. A second emitter produces a second field that creates an interaction so that the system wants to come to rest in a region set slightly ahead of the craft’s current position. It would be like a train laying a toothed track just in front of it as it goes along, always positioning the teeth so that the train will fall into the next location.

We could certainly produce EM fields, making a sort of stepper linear induction motor on a mat created by the ship itself. What about strong or weak nuclear forces? Even if stuck with EM, maybe we use rotating nuclei or rotating atoms or molecules, which would move like a microscopic stepper motors across our pre-quantized space grid. Tiny forces acting on individual protons or electrons adding up to macroscopic forces on our spacecraft. If we’re doing it with individual atoms or nuclear particles, the regions of space we impose the fields on would be just ahead of them, not  out in front of the spacecraft. If we’re using interacting EM fields,  then we’re relying on appropriate phasing and beam intensities to do the job.

As I said, early days. Needs work. Also needs a bigger brain. Intuitively this ought to work. It ought to be capable of up to light speed. The big question is where the energy comes from. It isn’t an impulse drive and doesn’t chuck matter out of a rocket nozzle, but it might collect small particles along the way to convert into energy. Or perhaps nature contributes the energy. If so, then this could get light speed travel without fuel and limited on-board energy supply. Just like gravity pulls a train down a hill, perhaps clever phase design could arrange the grid ahead to be always ‘downhill’ in which case this might turn out to be yet another vacuum energy drive. I honestly don’t know. I’m out of my depth, but intuition suggests this shows promise for someone smarter.