Future Surveillance

This is an update of my last surveillance blog 6 years ago, much of which is common discussion now. I’ll briefly repeat key points to save you reading it.

They used to say

“Don’t think it

If you must think it, don’t say it

If you must say it, don’t write it

If you must write it, don’t sign it”

Sadly this wisdom is already as obsolete as Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. The last three lines have already been automated.

I recently read of new headphones designed to recognize thoughts so they know what you want to listen to. Simple thought recognition in various forms has been around for 20 years now. It is slowly improving but with smart networked earphones we’re already providing an easy platform into which to sneak better monitoring and better though detection. Sold on convenience and ease of use of course.

You already know that Google and various other large companies have very extensive records documenting many areas of your life. It’s reasonable to assume that any or all of this could be demanded by a future government. I trust Google and the rest to a point, but not a very distant one.

Your phone, TV, Alexa, or even your networked coffee machine may listen in to everything you say, sending audio records to cloud servers for analysis, and you only have naivety as defense against those audio records being stored and potentially used for nefarious purposes.

Some next generation games machines will have 3D scanners and UHD cameras that can even see blood flow in your skin. If these are hacked or left switched on – and social networking video is one of the applications they are aiming to capture, so they’ll be on often – someone could watch you all evening, capture the most intimate body details, film your facial expressions and gaze direction while you are looking at a known image on a particular part of the screen. Monitoring pupil dilation, smiles, anguished expressions etc could provide a lot of evidence for your emotional state, with a detailed record of what you were watching and doing at exactly that moment, with whom. By monitoring blood flow and pulse via your Fitbit or smartwatch, and additionally monitoring skin conductivity, your level of excitement, stress or relaxation can easily be inferred. If given to the authorities, this sort of data might be useful to identify pedophiles or murderers, by seeing which men are excited by seeing kids on TV or those who get pleasure from violent games, and it is likely that that will be one of the justifications authorities will use for its use.

Millimetre wave scanning was once controversial when it was introduced in airport body scanners, but we have had no choice but to accept it and its associated abuses –  the only alternative is not to fly. 5G uses millimeter wave too, and it’s reasonable to expect that the same people who can already monitor your movements in your home simply by analyzing your wi-fi signals will be able to do a lot better by analyzing 5G signals.

As mm-wave systems develop, they could become much more widespread so burglars and voyeurs might start using them to check if there is anything worth stealing or videoing. Maybe some search company making visual street maps might ‘accidentally’ capture a detailed 3d map of the inside of your house when they come round as well or instead of everything they could access via your wireless LAN.

Add to this the ability to use drones to get close without being noticed. Drones can be very small, fly themselves and automatically survey an area using broad sections of the electromagnetic spectrum.

NFC bank and credit cards not only present risks of theft, but also the added ability to track what we spend, where, on what, with whom. NFC capability in your phone makes some parts of life easier, but NFC has always been yet another doorway that may be left unlocked by security holes in operating systems or apps and apps themselves carry many assorted risks. Many apps ask for far more permissions than they need to do their professed tasks, and their owners collect vast quantities of information for purposes known only to them and their clients. Obviously data can be collected using a variety of apps, and that data linked together at its destination. They are not all honest providers, and apps are still very inadequately regulated and policed.

We’re seeing increasing experimentation with facial recognition technology around the world, from China to the UK, and only a few authorities so far such as in San Francisco have had the wisdom to ban its use. Heavy handed UK police, who increasingly police according to their own political agenda even at the expense of policing actual UK law, have already fined people who have covered themselves to avoid being abused in face recognition trials. It is reasonable to assume they would gleefully seize any future opportunity to access and cross-link all of the various data pools currently being assembled under the excuse of reducing crime, but with the real intent of policing their own social engineering preferences. Using advanced AI to mine zillions of hours of full-sensory data input on every one of us gathered via all this routine IT exposure and extensive and ubiquitous video surveillance, they could deduce everyone’s attitudes to just about everything – the real truth about our attitudes to every friend and family member or TV celebrity or politician or product, our detailed sexual orientation, any fetishes or perversions, our racial attitudes, political allegiances, attitudes to almost every topic ever aired on TV or everyday conversation, how hard we are working, how much stress we are experiencing, many aspects of our medical state.

It doesn’t even stop with public cameras. Innumerable cameras and microphones on phones, visors, and high street private surveillance will automatically record all this same stuff for everyone, sometimes with benign declared intentions such as making self-driving vehicles safer, sometimes using social media tribes to capture any kind of evidence against ‘the other’. In depth evidence will become available to back up prosecutions of crimes that today would not even be noticed. Computers that can retrospectively date mine evidence collected over decades and link it all together will be able to identify billions of real or invented crimes.

Active skin will one day link your nervous system to your IT, allowing you to record and replay sensations. You will never be able to be sure that you are the only one that can access that data either. I could easily hide algorithms in a chip or program that only I know about, that no amount of testing or inspection could ever reveal. If I can, any decent software engineer can too. That’s the main reason I have never trusted my IT – I am quite nice but I would probably be tempted to put in some secret stuff on any IT I designed. Just because I could and could almost certainly get away with it. If someone was making electronics to link to your nervous system, they’d probably be at least tempted to put a back door in too, or be told to by the authorities.

The current panic about face recognition is justified. Other AI can lipread better than people and recognize gestures and facial expressions better than people. It adds the knowledge of everywhere you go, everyone you meet, everything you do, everything you say and even every emotional reaction to all of that to all the other knowledge gathered online or by your mobile, fitness band, electronic jewelry or other accessories.

Fools utter the old line: “if you are innocent, you have nothing to fear”. Do you know anyone who is innocent? Of everything? Who has never ever done or even thought anything even a little bit wrong? Who has never wanted to do anything nasty to anyone for any reason ever? And that’s before you even start to factor in corruption of the police or mistakes or being framed or dumb juries or secret courts. The real problem here is not the abuses we already see. It is what is being and will be collected and stored, forever, that will be available to all future governments of all persuasions and police authorities who consider themselves better than the law. I’ve said often that our governments are often incompetent but rarely malicious. Most of our leaders are nice guys, only a few are corrupt, but most are technologically inept . With an increasingly divided society, there’s a strong chance that the ‘wrong’ government or even a dictatorship could get in. Which of us can be sure we won’t be up against the wall one day?

We’ve already lost the battle to defend privacy. The only bits left are where the technology hasn’t caught up yet. In the future, not even the deepest, most hidden parts of your mind will be private. Pretty much everything about you will be available to an AI-upskilled state and its police.

The future for women

Your phone is wasted on you

Between 1983 and 1985, the fastest computer on Earth was the Cray X-MP. Its two 105MHz processors and 16MB of memory provided a peak performance of 400MFLOPS. It cost around $15M + disks.

The Apple iPhone XS is 1500 times faster and 15000 times cheaper.

In 1985, our division of 50 people ran all of its word processing on a VAX 11- 780, that produced 0.5MIPS (32bit). On equivalent instructions per second basis, the iPhone XS is 2.5M times faster, so ought to be able to run word processing for a country of 125M people.

Think about that next time you’re typing a text.


The future for women, pdf version

It is several years since my last post on the future as it will affect women so here is my new version as a pdf presentation:

Women and the Future

The future of land value

St BeesI don’t do investment advice much, and I am NOT an investment adviser of any kind, just a futurist doing some simple reasoning.

World population is around 7.7Bn.

It will increase, level off, then decline, then grow again.

Any projections you see are just educated guesswork. 9.8Bn figure is the UN global population estimate for 2050, and I won’t argue with that, it seems as good a guess as any. Everyone then expects it to level off and decline, as people have fewer kids. I’m not so sure. Read my blog five years ago that suggested it might grow again in the late century, perhaps reaching as high as 15Bn:


I only say might, because there are pressures in both directions and it is too hard to be sure in a far future society which ones will be stronger and by how much. I’m just challenging the standard view that it will decline into the far future, and if I had to place a bet, it would be on resumed growth.

Population is one large influence on demand for land and ‘real estate’.

Another is population distribution. Today, all around the world, people are moving from the countryside to cities. I argue that urbanization will soon peak, and then start to reverse:


De-urbanization will largely be enabled by high technology and its impacts on work and social life. It will be caused by increasing wealth, coupled to the normal desire to live happier lives. Wealth is increasing quickly, varying place to place and year to year. It is reasonable, given positive feedback effects from AI and automation, to assume average real growth of 2%, including occasional recessions and booms. By 2100, that means global wealth will be 5 times today’s. Leaving aside the lack of understanding of exponential growth by teachers indoctrinating schoolkids to think of themselves as economic victims, taken advantage of by greedy Boomers, that means today’s and tomorrow’s kids will have one hell of a lot more money available to spend on property.

So, there will be more people, with more money, more able to live anywhere. Real estate prices will increase, but not uniformly.

Very many of them will choose to leave cities and with lots of money in the bank, will want somewhere really nice. A lovely beachfront property perhaps, or on a mountainside with a gorgeous view. Or even on a hill overlooking the city, or deep in a forest with a waterfall in the garden. Some might buy boring homes in boring estates surrounded by fields but it won’t be first choice very often. The high prices will go to large and pretty homes in pretty locations, as they do today, but with much higher differential, because supply and demand dictates that. We won’t build more mountains or valleys or coastline. Supply stays limited while demand and bank balances rockets, so prices will rocket too.

Other property won’t necessarily become cheaper, it just won’t become as expensive as fast. Many people will still like cities and choose to live there, do business there, socialize there. They also will be richer, and there may be a lot more of them if population does indeed grow again, but increasing congestion would just cause more de-urbanization. Prices may still rise, but the real money will be moving elsewhere.

Farmland will mostly stay as farmland. Farms are generally functional rather than pretty. Agricultural productivity will be double or triple what it is today, maybe even more. Some food will be made in factories or vertical farms, using tissue culturing or hydroponics, or using feed-stocks based on algae grown at sea, or insects, or fungi. The figures therefore suggest that demand for land to grow stuff will be lower than today, in spite of a larger population. Some will be converted to city, some to pretty villages, some given back to nature, to further increase the attractiveness of those ultra-expensive homes in the nice areas in the distance. Whichever way, that doesn’t suggest very rapid growth of value for most agricultural land, the obvious exception being where it happens to be in or next to a pretty area, in which case it will rocket in value.

As I said, all of this is educated guesswork. Don’t bet the farm on it until you’ve done your own analysis. But my guess is, city property will gain modest value, agricultural land will hold its value or even fall slightly, unless it is in a pretty location. Anywhere pretty will skyrocket in price, be it an existing property or a piece of land that can be built on and stay pretty.

As a final observation, you might argue that pretty isn’t everything. Surely some people will value being near to centers of power or major hubs too? Yes they will, but that is already factored into the urbanization era. That value is already banked. Then it follows the rules just like any other urban property.


Augmented reality will objectify women

Microsoft Hololens 2 Visor

The excitement around augmented reality continues to build, and I am normally  enthusiastic about its potential, looking forward to enjoying virtual architecture, playing immersive computer games, or enjoying visual and performance artworks transposed into my view of the high street while I shop.

But it won’t all be wonderful. While a few PR and marketing types may worry a little about people overlaying or modifying their hard-won logos and ads, a bigger issue will be some people choosing to overlay people in the high street with ones that are a different age or gender or race, or simply prettier. Identity politics will be fought on yet another frontier.

In spite of waves of marketing hype and misrepresentation, AR is really only here in primitive form outside the lab. Visors fall very far short of what we’d hoped for by now even a decade ago, even the Hololens 2 shown above. But soon AR visors and eventually active contact lenses will enable fully 3D hi-res overlays on the real world. Then, in principle at least, you can make things look how you want, with a few basic limits. You could certainly transform a dull shop, cheap hotel room or an office into an elaborate palace or make it look like a spaceship. But even if you change what things look like, you still have to represent nearby physical structures and obstacles in your fantasy overlay world, or you may bump into them, and that includes all the walls and furniture, lamp posts, bollards, vehicles, and of course other people. Augmented reality allows you to change their appearance thoroughly but they still need to be there somehow.

When it comes to people, there will be some battles. You may spend ages creating a wide variety of avatars, or may invest a great deal of time and money making or buying them. You may have a digital aura, hoping to present different avatars to different passers-by according to their profiles. You may want to look younger or thinner or as a character you enjoy playing in a computer game. You may present a selection of options to the AIs controlling the passer person’s view and the avatar they see overlaid could be any one of the images you have on offer. Perhaps some privileged people get to pick from a selection you offer, while others you wish to privilege less are restricted to just one that you have set for their profile. Maybe you’d have a particularly ugly or offensive one to present to those with opposing political views.

Except that you can’t assume you will be in control. In fact, you probably won’t.

Other people may choose not to see your avatar, but instead to superimpose one of their own choosing. The question of who decides what the viewer sees is perhaps the first and most important battle in AR. Various parties would like to control it – visor manufacturers, O/S providers, UX designers, service providers, app creators, AI providers, governments, local councils, police and other emergency services, advertisers and of course individual users. Given market dynamics, most of these ultimately come down to user choice most of the time, albeit sometimes after paying for the privilege. So it probably won’t be you who gets to choose how others see you, via assorted paid intermediary services, apps and AI, it will be the other person deciding how they want to see you, regardless of your preferences.

So you can spend all the time you want designing your avatar and tweaking your virtual make-up to perfection, but if someone wants to see their favorite celebrity walking past instead of you, they will. You and your body become no more than an object on which to display any avatar or image someone else chooses. You are quite literally reduced to an object in the AR world. Augmented reality will literally objectify women, reducing them to no more than a moving display space onto which their own selected images are overlaid. A few options become obvious.

Firstly they may just take your actual physical appearance (via a video camera built into their visor for example) and digitally change it,  so it is still definitely you, but now dressed more nicely, or dressed in sexy lingerie, or how you might look naked, using the latest AI to body-fit fantasy images from a porn database. This could easily be done automatically in real time using some app or other. You’ve probably already seen recent AI video fakery demos that can present any celebrity saying anything at all, almost indistinguishable from reality. That will soon be pretty routine tech for AR apps. They could even use your actual face as input to image-matching search engines to find the most plausible naked lookalikes. So anyone could digitally dress or undress you, not just with their eyes, but with a hi-res visor using sophisticated AI-enabled image processing software. They could put you in any kind of outfit, change your skin color or make-up or age or figure, and make you look as pretty and glamorous or as slutty as they want. And you won’t have any idea what they are seeing. You simply won’t know whether they are respectfully celebrating your inherent beauty, or flattering you by making you look even prettier, which you might not mind at all, or might object to strongly in the absence of explicit consent, or worse still, stripping or degrading you to whatever depths they wish, with no consent or notification, which you probably will mind a lot.

Or they can treat you as just an object on which to superimpose some other avatar, which could be anything or anyone – a zombie, favorite actress or supermodel. They won’t need your consent and again you won’t have any idea what they are seeing. The avatar may make the same gestures and movements and even talk plausibly, saying whatever their AI thinks they might like, but it won’t be you. In some ways this might not be so bad. You’d still be reduced to an object but at least it wouldn’t be you that they’re looking at naked. To most strangers on a high street most of the time, you’re just a moving obstacle to avoid bumping into, so being digitally transformed into a walking display board may worry you. Most people will cope with that bit. It is when you stop being just a passing stranger and start to interact in some way that it really starts to matter. You probably won’t like it if someone is chatting to you but they are actually looking at someone else entirely, especially if the viewer is one of your friends or your partner. And if your partner is kissing or cuddling you but seeing someone else, that would be a strong breach of trust, but how would you know? This sort of thing could and probably will damage a lot of relationships.

Most of the software to do most of this is already in development and much is already demonstrable. The rest will develop quickly once AR visors become commonplace.

In the office, in the home, when you’re shopping or at a party, you soon won’t have any idea what or who someone else is seeing when they look at you. Imagine how that would clash with rules that are supposed to be protection from sexual harassment  in the office. Whole new levels of harassment will be enabled, much invisible. How can we police behaviors we can’t even detect? Will hardware manufacturers be forced to build in transparency and continuous experience recording

The main casualty will be trust.  It will make us question how much we trust each of our friends and colleagues and acquaintances. It will build walls. People will often become suspicious of others, not just strangers but friends and colleagues. Some people will become fearful. You may dress as primly or modestly as you like, but if the viewer chooses to see you wearing a sexy outfit, perhaps their behavior and attitude towards you will be governed by that rather than reality. Increased digital objectification might lead to increase physical sexual assault or rape. We may see more people more often objectifying women in more circumstances.

The tech applies equally to men of course. You could make a man look like a silverback gorilla or a zombie or fake-naked. Some men will care more than others, but the vast majority of real victims will undoubtedly be women. Many men objectify women already. In the future AR world , they’ll be able to do so far more effectively, more easily.


Drones as parachute substitutes could create a new extreme sport

I just watched a nice video of drone surfing on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/activity:6501182000831963136/

This video link might work:


I immediately thought how drones powerful enough to ‘kite-surf’ would also be useful in new forms of parkour (free running), enabling stunts that wouldn’t be possible otherwise, or acting as a sort of safety net during practice to cushion any falls.

My second thought is that it might soon be feasible to use drones as a substitute for parachutes. Someone could jump out of a plane and the drone could slow their descent, or allow them to travel long horizontal distances during descent or to perform elaborate tricks. That could make a whole new kind of extreme sport, allowing the sorts of things people do in free-fall jumps over much longer times and distances and giving far better control of relative speed between jumpers.

Using auto-gyro effects, some stages of a fall could be used to recharge batteries to power rotors for the next phase.

Fun, though not for the faint-hearted perhaps.

If you’re looking for aliens visiting Earth, what might they look like?

I don’t believe stories about aliens capturing isolated nutters and probing them on their spaceships before bringing them home, but who don’t bother to make their presence known to anyone else. That makes no sense. I theorized many years ago that perhaps the main reason we don’t see aliens visiting is that by the time a civilization gets to the technology level that permits interstellar travel, they are most likely to eradicate themselves via high-tech weaponry, nanotech accidents or some other tech-enabled extinction route. I suggested that almost all civilizations would become extinct within 300 years of discovering radio.

I also wrote a blog about how genetically engineered fairies would make ideal space travelers, since they could be made very small, and therefore only need small and cheap space ships, but thanks to electronic brains or use of external IT as brain space, be just as smart as real people, and have wings to fly around zero gravity spaceships.


Extending that thought to what aliens might look like, they would likely have the same capability in genetic engineering, and face the same engineering constraints, so would likely come up with a similar solution.

Miniaturization could go much further, and it’s possible in principle to make tiny capsules, microns across, that contain all the data needed to make a human or android body, and a few nano-fabricators that could do the building of other fabricators that make the infrastructure, robots, androids and organisms once they land on another planet. Maybe an advanced civilization might have the technology to make small wormholes through which to fire these tiny capsules in many directions so as to rapidly explore and colonize a galaxy. Given reasonably expectable morality, they wouldn’t want to geoengineer planets that are already inhabited, so the capsules would only activate if they land on uninhabited planets.

So, given these two quite likely technology capabilities for an interstellar space-fairing civilizations, aliens would either be in a micron-sized capsule or two that could be anywhere on the planet, and therefore highly unlikely to ever be found… or they might look like fairies.

Many people through history claim to have seen fairies of various descriptions, and usually they have magical powers. Via Arthur C Clarke, we of course know that any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic. So, although I don’t believe they exist or existed, and think that those who claim to have seen them probably have poor eyesight or overly vivid imaginations or are drugged or pissed, or hallucinating, there is a small but finite possibility that they have existed and were visiting aliens.

Maybe fairies, pixies and other magical tiny people were simply aliens from different star systems.


Who controls AI, controls the world

This week, the fastest supercomputer broke a world record for AI, using machine learning in climate research:


I guess most readers thought this is a great thing, after all we need to solve climate change. That wasn’t my thought. The first thing my boss told me when I used a computer for the first time was: “shit in, shit out”. I don’t remember his name but I remember that concise lesson every time I read about climate models. If either the model or the data is garbage, or both, the output will also be garbage.

So my first thought reading about this new record was: will they let the AI work everything out for itself using all the raw, unadjusted data available about the environment, including all the astrophysics data about every kind of solar activity, human agricultural, industrial activities, air travel, all the unadjusted measurements of or proxies for surface, sea and air temperatures, ever collected, any empirical evidence for any corrections that might be needed on such data in any direction, and then let it make its own deductions, form its own models of how it might all connected and then watch eagerly as it makes predictions?

Or will they just input their own models, CO2 blinkering, prejudices and group-think, adjusted datasets, data omissions and general distortions of historical records into biased models already indoctrinated with climate change dogma, so that it will reconfirm the doom and gloom forecasts we’re so used to hearing, maximizing their chances of continued grants? If they do that, the AI might as well be a cardboard box with a pre-written article stuck on it. Shit in, shit out.

It’s obvious that the speed and capability of the supercomputer is of secondary important to who controls the AI, and its access to data, and its freedom to draw its own conclusions.

(Read my blog on Fake AI: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/11/16/fake-ai/)

You may recall a week or two ago that IBM released a new face database to try to address bias in AI face recognition systems. Many other kinds of data could have biases for all sorts of reasons. At face value reducing bias is a good thing, but what exactly do we mean by that? Who decides what is biased and what is real? There are very many potential AI uses that are potentially sensitive, such as identifying criminals or distinguishing traits that correlate with gender, sexuality, race, religion, or indeed any discernible difference. Are all deductions by the AI permissible, or are huge swathes of possible deductions not permitted because they might be politically unacceptable? Who controls the AI? Why? With what aims?

Many people have some degree of influence on  AI. Those who provide funding, equipment, theoreticians, those who design hardware, those who design the learning and training mechanisms, those who supply the data, those who censor or adjust data before letting the AI see it, those who design the interfaces, those who interpret and translate the results, those who decide which results are permissible and how to spin them, and publish them.

People are often impressed when a big powerful computer outputs results of massive amounts of processing. Outputs may often be used to control public opinion and government policy, to change laws, to alter balance of power in society, to create and destroy empires. AI will eventually make or influence most decisions of any consequence.

As AI techniques become more powerful, running on faster and better computers, we must always remember that golden rule: shit in, shit out. And we must always be suspicious of those who might have reason to influence an outcome.

Because who controls AI, controls the world.



‘Party popper’ mines could save lives

War is never nice, but mines can carry on killing or maiming people long after a war is over.

Suppose instead of using powerful explosives and shrapnel that a tiny explosion ejected lots of strong streamers, like a big party popper. If the streamers are long and strong, made from silk or graphene for example, then they could entangle anyone caught in the blast and restrain or impede them for several minutes while they untangle themselves. If that is on a battlefield, it would give plenty of time to deal with the attacking soldiers, achieving a large part of the military purpose, but if the party popper mine is left after a conflict is over, the worst it would do is to waste a few minutes of someone’s life, rather than to destroy the rest of it or end it. It should be possible to make effective poppers that would not cause any major injury, even at very close range maybe bruising or a small wound at worst, while still ensnaring anyone withing several metres of the blast.

Such mines could also reduce the numbers of soldiers killed on a battlefield, making it possible to capture instead of killing.

It would be naive to believe we can avoid violent conflicts completely, but if we can head towards international treaties that replace conventional mines with party popper mines, that would surely be a valuable step, saving civilian and military lives. If killing and maiming enemies can be substituted more by capture and detainment, that would be better still.

Some attempts at this have been made. https://www.wired.com/2009/02/foam-based-vehi/ describes one such attempt – thanks to my friend Nick Colosimo for the link. Maybe time to have another go, especially as new materials like graphene silk threads should be appearing soon.