Futurology blog: what’s the next trend that’ll disrupt our world, financially, socially or just pointlessly?

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Could the credit crunch trigger a real global economy?

One of the problems of the world is the extreme concentration of highly educated, highly talented people in just a few major centres. It’s only obvious that spreading out the cream will be to the world’s benefit. And now it’s likely to happen.

In the USA and UK, there are still some derivative pigeons flying around aimlessly in the air. But the great big clouds of them that have already come home to roost will soon be kicking and pecking the rest of the economy to bits and pooing on the pieces.

A lot of short-sighted observers are proclaiming that the rest of the world will get off lightly. What a joke. The S&P 500 and the FTSE 100 are mostly global corporations. And most of the banks are global. So there’s going to be a big mess of horizontal dominoes fairly soon. But still, some economies will suffer less than others. Which will have a very interesting result.

Right now, London’s hottest newly unemployed bankers are heading off to Dubai. (Presumably the Arabs want their banks to go belly-up as well, I’m not sure.) And as sector after sector gets hit, more and more highly qualified people will jet off to wherever they can still scratch a living.

Back in 1929, there was no global economy to escape to. But this time around, hotshots who followed their natural career paths to New York, London, etcetera will end up all over the world map. Every age group, from middle-aged parents to young execs to grads. Because it’s a lot more fun to earn a living in some faraway place than it is to rot back home, waiting for your home to be repossessed or simply waiting in an unemployment office queue.

Places like New Zealand and Tasmania and Argentina and Chile and Tunisia and Panama and I don’t know, all kinds of places that ambitious people totally overlooked before can now expect huge injections of professional talent and can-do willingness to succeed. Even the less developed places will gain – anywhere where’s there’s enough people to constitute a market will be attractive: Vietnam, the Philippines, Cuba, Peru.

Many, many years, Scottish engineers sailed away from their home and kick-started all kinds of progress in unlikely places. Now it could happen again, but across every kind of economic endeavour. Most will have never lived abroad before. Others will actually be returning home to countries they left after school or graduation. Sure there’ll be plenty of failure along the way, but in ten years’ time, the global economy could just become a lot more level.

It’s the talent and knowledge diaspora that the international development quangos could have only dreamed about.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Nudity: the only answer to sweatshops

Mass-produced clothes are such an ethical minefield. The only way we can be absolutely sure about the conditions under which they‘re produced is if they actually have a label saying “Produced by under-aged pre-teens working 12 hours a day for a plate of gruel.”

So in the end we just kind of buy what we can afford and hope for the best. OK, I know that American Apparel is made in LA (I’ve seen the factory) and Xara is made in Spain but if the newspapers told us tomorrow that the stuff was being sneaked in the back door of the factory from containers imported from an underground child labour camp in Birmingham, we’d probably just shrug, sigh and reach for our Fairtrade cups of coffee which we’re pretty sure come from real hill farmers but may just be channeled through a hill farmer who’s really a front for a multinational drugs gang.

One way to get around the clothing guilt thing is to buy second hand clothes, which is fine except someone’s got to buy the stuff first hand to make it second hand for us ethical types. It’s really just a matter of deferring the guilt. Besides, what about the people in the developing world who’re getting most of the second hand clothing now? If the stuff stayed in our wardrobes or just ended up at the neighbours, what would they wear and what would all the middlemen around the globe who deal in second hand clothing do for a living?

(Well, there is the chance that all the textile companies that were forced to close down when their markets were swamped by the West’s discarded clothing could start up again, but it’s probably a bit late for that.)

No, the answer is to wear nothing. No guilt, no shame. Just the flesh you were born with. And if you’re arrested, your defence would be that of the environmental activitists who were acquitted from damaging the Kingsnorth power station in Kent: “I admit my crime but I committed it purely to prevent a greater crime.”

Coming soon to a news channel near you.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Get ready for a new world language

Given the enormous adaptability, flexibility and learnability of English, it seems unlikely that it won’t remain the lingua franca of the world. But that expression ‘lingua franca’ must be a big red flashing clue. French used to be the leading language in Europe, Africa, Asia-Pacific and parts of America. Today? It’s fallen down the international language list - behind English, Spanish, Arabic and Portuguese. (I’ve arbitrarily decided that Mandarin, Hindi, Bengali and Russian are regional rather than international languages, OK?)

Sure, French lost its place because, one, the French Empire disappeared and, two, there’s a whole bureaucracy devoted to keeping the language ‘pure’, meaning it simply can’t adapt to the modern world of gigabytes, tacoburgers and collateralized debt obligations.

With English, the political empire has disappeared but the British/American cultural empire is still supreme, led by Hollywood, Wall Street, Harry Potter, pop music and the internet. And English is utterly remarkable for the speed at which it adds new words and expressions, as well as new meanings and uses for existing words. Three noteworthy examples from the last few months would be ‘credit crunch’, ‘deleverage’ and ‘skiing’ (spending the kids’ inheritance - the logical result of the first two examples.)

So why would such a useful language lose its top dog position?

Well, just take a look at how fast new slang (‘epic fail’ for example) spreads on the internet. Check out Lolcats (at icanhascheezburger.com) to see how freely grammar is being subverted purely for the hell of it. Up to now the ‘establishment’ has always been strong enough to drop a wet blanket on such deviance, or assimilate it if necessary. (No matter how people talk on the street, the mainstream media and bank statement speak tend to keep us toeing the line in business environments and at dinner parties. This is also why none of the synthetic languages like Esperanto or, er, Klingon, have got very far.)

But one day the latest slang may just get completely out of hand and set off on its own uncharted course, diverging further and further from the mother tongue. Especially as the ‘establishment’ is becoming more and more distant in terms of age from the people pioneering new language use.

On the internet, a ten year old’s user generated content is as valid as anyone else’s. You no longer need a PhD to sound off on what’s right and wrong. And remember, going against the grain is an end in itself for the young.

Add to that the fact that the centre of gravity of the internet is moving Eastwards. Eastern Europeans and Asians are all adding their voices – and words. And that the developing world has an enormous ‘youth bubble’ reaching the age of defiance.

They’ll be holding the keys to the world economy soon – and may just assert their power with a new language. 

Monday, 22 September 2008

Open source democracy, anyone?

So now we know that uncontrolled capitalism ends in tears. And you can be sure that leaders of less democratic countries like China, Iran and Venezuela will offer the opinion that it’s really Western-style liberal democracy that’s to blame, and really, the State has to control every walk of life to protect citizens from regular mass financial suicide.

And let’s be honest, democracy as it’s been practised lately hasn’t really worked. While it’s left the economy alone to boom out of control, we’ve somehow ended up with more and more state control of everything else anyway.

There’ll be a lot of pressure now to extend state control: firstly to the economy, and then to everything else too, particularly immigration, imports and protection of resources.

But the opposite is also quite feasible. A move towards an even more democratic system, made possible via the internet.

In the UK we’ve already seen a prototype version with the rise of e-petitions, whereby if enough people support a proposal, the government is forced to respond. So far it’s killed off the notion of government being allowed to satellite-track our car journeys, but Jeremy Clarkson still hasn’t emerged as a serious contender to Gordon Brown’s premiership, and we haven’t introduced cannabis laws in a “simular mannor” to Amsterdam.

But the basic idea is wonderful. Members of parliament are a waste of time and money: they simply follow their leaders like hungry dogs. When a bill of real importance comes up for voting, most of them have no better understanding of its implications than the man in the street and just vote as they’re told, if they bother to vote at all. In the UK, the upper house is often the only voice of reason, and they’re not even democratically constituted.

With e-democracy, e-mocracy, or wikiocracy, or whatever it might be called, everyone gets to vote on everything. Of course, to prevent a situation where only an organized elite bothers to vote, there would need to be economic incentives to vote – units in a national savings scheme would be sufficient. (And if that doesn’t particularly incentivise the rich, so much the better. They have far too much incentive to fund our politicians at the moment.)

Bills could be proposed by anyone, and others could second them or propose amendments wiki fashion. Perhaps a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote isn’t sufficient: one version of a bill might be worth a ‘7 out of 10’ and another only worth a ‘5’. People could comment on the bills online, just as they comment on news stories and washing machines at the moment, and others could rate the value of their comments. After all, it’s nothing we’re not doing already on hundreds of different websites.

There would also have to be security safeguards to stop other people from hijacking your vote, or from exposing how you voted. Some would say that’s impossible: but the fact is that real e-security is an absolute priority right now anyway to prevent Russian gangsters from destroying what’s left of our economy.

The fact that so many people still aren’t connected to the internet isn’t a big problem either: people could phone or text in their votes once the security problem is licked.

Then we could dissolve parliament, except for an upper house of some kind to act as a counterbalance in the event of some mass media-driven hysteria leading us to ban alcohol or something, and see how real democracy works.

Friday, 19 September 2008

GM, A.I. and my daughter's birthday

I’ve just ordered a unicorn foal to give to my daughter for her sixth birthday. Not one of those nasty bodge jobs where they graft on an ibex horn in the middle of a horse’s forehead, this is the real thing, gene spliced to perfection.

I can’t wait to see my little girl’s face. Especially when the baby unicorn speaks to her in its cute little voice. OK, the unicorn won’t actually have a proper voice box, it would need a human brain as well to do real speech and I’m not sure I’d want that even if it was legal, which, as we all know, it isn’t.

So they’re installing the latest voice synthesizer plus voice-recognition and speech AI into a jewel-like casing and implanting that on the forehead below the horn. It’ll have wi-fi functionality so the AI and voice can be upgraded as my daughter gets older.

Also, if the AI starts talking complete nonsense, it can be rebooted – I can even send it things to say, which could work out brilliantly if my daughter’s having a hissy fit about having a bath or doing her homework or whatever. Imagine. “I eat grass, you should eat your broccoli.”

There’s a power supply built in somehow, works off the horse’s, sorry, unicorn’s, body heat in some ingenious way.

OK, so it’s all costing me an arm and a leg but it’s going to be worth it when the neighbours see it strutting by. It’ll knock their griffin right off its perch. The stupid thing hasn’t even learnt how to fly, gets a broken leg every time they give it a go.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Could unemployed bankers kick-start an invention revolution?

Where have all the inventions gone? Ask people what the most exciting inventions of the past twenty years were and they’ll talk about iPods and Blackberries and, er, memory sticks and Skyboxes and Xboxes and um, wi-fi and broadband.

And while all those inventions are wonderful and have arguably improved our quality of life, they’re hardly on the same level of wow as the inventions of the phone, radio, TV, semi-conductors, X-rays and space rockets. Even the internet was invented quite some while back.

Of course, you can’t deny that innovation has accelerated. Everything’s better, faster, smaller, cheaper and uses less power. But 99% of it is just tweaking what we have already or sticking more and more things together in one box.

Given the tools we have nowadays and the VC money available, and given that modern economies are based on constant innovation and universities churn out design engineers by the thousand, you’d think that there’d be a world-changing invention every other year.

Why on earth isn’t there?

Perhaps the most creative engineers are being offered too much money to design upgrades to bother with true breakthroughs. Or perhaps the real geniuses are too eccentric to gain support from today’s dull, conformist boardrooms.

I don’t know. But I do know that we need grand inventions like never before. The world’s in a hell of a mess and governments, whether democratic or totalitarian, have proved to be utterly ineffective at doing anything about it.

We need inventions that produce and store energy affordably and efficiently on a domestic scale. We need smart clouds that reflect sunlight at the right time and let it through at the right time. And I’d be happy with self-cleaning boot soles that shed dog poo before it smeared itself all over my doormat.

Well, maybe there’s new hope. We’ve suddenly got thousands of wealthy, risk-addicted and highly competitive individuals thrown out of their jobs, looking around for another way to make a buck. They’re not going to invent anything themselves (except for a new financial bubble if we let them) but some of them are quite likely to set themselves up as VCs and invite proposals from the people who can. Some of them may even put a priority on “better world” inventions, as a way to redeem their guilt-ridden souls (well, maybe). 

Perhaps we have even more reason to cheer their redundancies than we thought.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

The Large Hadron Collider: the ultimate question generator

The Large Hadron Collider, we’re told, will help scientists solve some of the mysteries of the universe. But while I’m agog with fascination at the whole thing, I have my doubts that the LHC will achieve its stated mission, or even whether the scientists who designed the LHC expect it to.

So far, every time scientists look deeper into quantum scale events, they fill their textbooks with more mysteries than they started with. Why should the LHC change this?

We’re told that the LHC may help resolve the fundamental incompatibility between the theory of relativity and quantum theory. Supposedly gravity can be explained by relativity – in terms of a warping of space-time. Quantum theory, which explains things by a warping of the brain, somehow contradicts the relativity explanation.

So the idea is that colliding the two theories with tiny particles will either get them to shake hands or gravity will cease to exist and Wonderbra sales will go into freefall.

I think this is all a bit optimistic. The last time I looked, there were two theories of relativity (the second one to explain the bits that didn’t quite work in the first one) and umpteen different quantum theories (and that’s just in this universe, which some of the theories claim is just one of an infinite number). To extrapolate, it’s far more likely that the LHC will lead to ever more incompatible theories than it is to resolve the issues they have with each other.

The other weird thing to bear in mind is that the results produced by the LHC may be specific to LHC conditions and to nowhere else. That’s not as ridiculous as it sounds.

Using really, really simple apparatus that you can put together yourself in a few minutes, you can show that photons decide how to behave depending on whether and how they’re being observed, like naughty investment bankers. (Try it yourself, it really is mindboggling.)

So how on earth (or under it) do we know that gravitons and gluons and quarks and Higgs Bosons won’t alter their behaviour when they realise that they’re finally under scrutiny? Right now we barely know the first thing about dark energy and dark matter. Putting the stuff under the LHC microscope could just alter its behaviour, with profound results.

Thing is, there’s no way we can know that until we give it a try. And after we’ve done it, we’ll probably never know whether our surveillance has altered the properties of the stuff that fills up 94% of the universe or not.

I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t fiddle with the basic building blocks of reality. It’s going to be utterly thrilling. All I’m saying is that I expect the universe to be a lot more incomprehensible next year than now.

Monday, 15 September 2008

The boom-bust boom: where's it taking us?

The boom-bust cycle has become embedded in the USA and UK: the derivatives bubbles of the 90s, the brief millennial dot-com bubble, and the ten-year housing bubble that resulted in the disastrous sub-prime boom and bust.

And on the very day of Lehman Brothers losing its battle with reality, the art boom has reached new levels of silliness, with Damien Hirst’s novelties being auctioned for ridiculous sums. The art world's bust must surely be just around the corner.

In the background, there’s a long-running resources boom, a worldwide frenzy to strip anything of value out of the ground before restrictions can be legislated or enforced – much of the activity is illegal anyway. The utterly cynical move to biofuels is part of this: nobody involved in the industry can pretend that it hasn’t resulted in massive food inflation and food shortages, but they’ll persist with the madness until the biofuels market blows up in their faces. The inevitable bust will be in the form of climate change, making this the most dangerous boom of all.

So far, there was no way that the boom-bust cycle could be legislated away. Every investor, large or small, always believes that they’ll be able to recognise the perfect moment to sell, at the very tip of any boom (no matter how often they get it wrong). The ultra-rich love the ensuing crashes because of the extraordinary value they can then enjoy, picking up assets, companies, and property willy-nilly. And the public tend to forget about the busts as they get swept along by the next boom (look, our pension’s going up again, look, our house is making us richer each month than our salaries ever can).

So there has been no real pressure on governments to create change. Until now. Because now, too much public money has been spent in the attempts to prevent a total financial meltdown, and too many culpable bank directors have been retired with pay-offs beyond the dreams of the people they have effectively mugged. 

The man in the street will want revenge. And they’ll want protection. The problem is that this great desire for revenge and protection will be strongest just when the super-rich move in to pick up their bargains. And this time around, the richest of the super-rich will be outsiders: Russians and Chinese and Arabs looking to diversify their assets.

Expect the politicians to divert the public’s emotion towards these targets – while protecting their own backers. In the process, they may take the opportunity to make our democracies and financial privileges a little less free and open, with the full support of their public. (Just remember how easily the Patriot Act slithered into being after 9/11.)

With an election imminent in America and an extremely vulnerable leader in the UK, the timing couldn’t be worse. Whether necessary reforms are distorted into the forms of nationalism or mild fascism all depends on how bad things get in the next few weeks.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Sarah Palin - the ultimate black swan

When Hilary Clinton warned America about the possibility of an inexperienced President having to answer a 2am phone call in the White House, no-one could have imagined that it could be a complete amateur taking that call.

McCain, if he wins the election, is hardly likely to see out a full term. Ill health, a stroke or dementia could sideline him if he doesn’t actually die in office. Especially since the next American president is going to have to endure a heck of a lot more pressure than George Bush, who had so few real problems to deal with that his cronies had to exaggerate them out of all proportion to scare the electorate into re-electing him.

Imagine Palin being handed the reigns at a moment’s notice. While two new superpowers, Russia and China, square up to each other and America. With India and Pakistan still at each other’s throats. With Latin and South America simmering, a land grab in full swing in the Arctic Circle, South East Asia brimming with paranoia, and the EU united only in its agenda of ramming its version of free trade down the throats of its underdeveloped and powerless victims in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

It’s what Vladimir Putin dreams about. With anyone else as American President, he’ll merely test his limits. With Palin as president, destiny would propel him to reach for the brass ring. Not that his constituency in the Kremlin – and the Russian Federation – would give him any option.

That 2am phone call would be about restricted gas and oil supplies and tanks rumbling into ‘secessionist’ states. A minor Warsaw Pact nation would have been provoked into retaliation. At the same time, there’d be a feint in Latin America, senior American diplomats taken as hostages, who knows.

The situation would be perfectly judged: not enough to justify a nuclear response, but enough to shatter the Warsaw Pact and knock America off its “sole world leader” perch. And every tin-pot tyrant around the world eager to put the boot in in any way they could. By the time Palin finished her term, America would long for the days when there was only the ridiculous ‘war on terror’ to fight.

The sad thing is that it wouldn’t be Mrs Palin’s fault. It would be the fault of an electorate that believes that being the leader of the free world takes nothing more than bludgeoning a few underdeveloped countries into submission, while bullying the rest of the free world into putting up with it. 

Friday, 12 September 2008

We do have a black hole and we're all being sucked in

No-one seriously expected the LHC to produce a black hole and of course it didn’t. However, the American and British financial institutions have created a financial black hole and it looks like the world’s entire economic system might just be dragged into it, to its utter destruction.

The governments of these two countries are pouring more and more money into the hole, hoping to fill it. But as we know, black holes don’t work like that. The more that goes in, the more powerful the black hole becomes.

In this analogy, the more value is lost, the more the banks have to ‘deleverage’ themselves, and the faster that good debt will turn to bad. What’s more, when we sell our bank shares, we have to do something else with the money. We can buy shares in other sectors, but ultimately the banks’ reluctance to finance new economic activity will reduce their value too. We can put our money into a savings account … which will only last as long as the bank does.

The black hole’s sphere of destruction has already widened far beyond America and the UK. Let’s assume that it carries on getting worse and worse until every last piece of credit is sucked in and destroyed. When you consider the insane amount of leveraging that banks were doing as a matter of course, it’s not impossible. Total debt really could surpass total credit, especially as shareholder panic continues to destroy share value.

We’d then simply have to start a new economy based on something else. Clams weren’t international enough, metals like silver and gold didn’t really work as people could always just dig them out of the ground, and credit is on its last legs. It’ll certainly be interesting to see what comes next.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Climate change litigation - even sooner than I thought

£50m in blood money to Bangladesh. Acquittal of the Kingsnorth 6. Being a major carbon emitter may be about to become very, very expensive.

Just two days ago I wrote about the probability that people and nations affected by climate change would try to take the countries, corporations and individuals most responsible for climate change to court.

Well, well, well.

Later that same day Britain agreed to give Bangladesh at least £50m to help them stave off the effects of climate change. International development secretary Douglas Alexander talked about the "moral duty" of developed countries to help countries like Bangladesh adjust to climate change. Perhaps he even meant it. But you can be sure that the deal includes a clause prohibiting Bangladesh from suing the UK for billions more pounds if their flood defenses prove inadequate. For Britain, it's a bargain.

But would it stop Bangladeshi individuals from suing the UK government, whose climate change policies have so far lagged far behind some other EU nations, or from suing the corporations that they have allowed to carry on emitting carbon willy-nilly?

Today, the six Greenpeace protestors arrested for climbing a 200 metre chimney of the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in Kent, UK, were acquitted of causing criminal damage. They defendants admitted causing the damage, but the jury agreed with their defence: that they were simply trying to prevent energy company E.ON from causing much greater damage to property around the world.

"The jury was told that Kingsnorth emits the same amount of CO2 as the 30 least polluting countries in the world combined – and that there are advanced plans to build a new coal-fired power station next to the existing site on the Hoo Peninsula in Kent."

It's the first time this defence has been used in a case of this kind. It won't be the last. But more importantly, it'll make it very attractive for people who believe that their property has been damaged by the activities of large-scale carbon emitters to attempt to take them to court.

There must be a lot of nervous CEOs out there. Shareholders, watch out.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

The new arms race: what new toys can we expect?

With diminishing resources, undiminished American arrogance (and paranoia) and a rash of territorial posturing all over Asia, the arms race is back on. Here's how I see it developing:

South Korea has already deployed robot sentries on their border, with weaponry that would make a very nasty mess of any North Korean who attracted their attention (although it’s inevitable that they’ll do it some innocent kid first). Fortunately the things aren’t mobile, but the Americans are making great strides with self-guided land vehicles, so drone machine gunners will be with us in a few years.

That’ll mean that countries could wage war with no risk to their own soldiers’ lives, through a combination of drone bombers, artillery and drone tanks. For a country like the USA, this effectively takes public opinion ‘back home’ out of the equation.

As a result, nuclear weapons will become an absolute must-have for any despot aligned against the USA that can’t afford a drone army – and then, for their neighbours too. This will put a final end to the practically toothless nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

So we’re looking at a world stuffed with nukes. What’s the response from the West?

Wait for some satellite-based scheme to rear its nose cone again. However, while satellites can detect the firing of a nuclear missile, they can’t detect suitcase nukes or ones dropped out of an aeroplane, whether a bomber or a hijacked airliner.

It seems that a shield-based defence won’t be enough. The generals will want a proper offensive deterrent, but something that’s not provocative enough to automatically kick off a proper nuclear war.

Here’s one idea: a nanofilm solar reflector.

Basically, an immense sun umbrella made from incredibly thin material, which would deploy from a satellite and unfurl in orbit above any would-be offender’s capital. After a fairly short time, the city will freeze solid. The idea is that, before then, the native population would quickly take to the streets and unseat their leadership, after which the reflector could be refurled (if there’s such a word). Relatively benign and not a bad bargaining tool to convince a dictator not to acquire nukes. (And it would reduce global warming too.)

Any other thoughts?

Monday, 8 September 2008

How soon will climate change deniers face trial?

As we all know, tobacco companies have been sued for fortunes for continuing to promote products, without adequate warnings, when they knew that their consumption could prove fatal.

Well, what about the corporations that have spent millions paying lobbyists and “scientists” to rubbish climate change/global warming theory?

The over-bloated and ultra-lame IPCC (the Interplanetary Council for Climate Change or whatever it calls itself) has stuck its timid neck out far enough to claim that climate change theory has a 95% chance of being right. Which would appear to mean that it's all but incontrovertible.

And according to the theory, barring some unforeseen Black Swan event, the earth will, in a couple of decades, become hot enough to profoundly screw up the environments and livelihoods of tens of millions of people, and once that happens, millions of people would die as a result.

Those people would die as a result of river flooding, coastal storm surges, famine and disease. (Sea levels won’t have risen enough yet to remove entire cities from the map. That would come later.)

Now, I’ve seen how angry people can get when someone borrows their favourite coffee cup without asking. So I’m kind of anticipating that there will be a whole lot of anger flying around when their children and their houses get wiped out by climate change.

I’m willing to place a bet that these angry people will want to take the people and corporations responsible to some kind of court and attempt to sue the pants off them, if not send them to a suitably low-lying prison for the rest of their lives.

It won’t just be individuals who’ll be getting litigious. There’ll be a lot of insurance companies who’ll be keen to claw back their losses before they (possibly quite literally) go under. It’ll probably also become a political issue big enough to tear the United Nations to pieces as the South-East Asian countries go after America and the European Union for damages.

Exxon-Mobil, the world’s biggest offender, would be the biggest target by far. And although its directors may escape prosecution because of the warped legislation that makes it extremely difficult to make directors culpable for their sins, many of the people who’ve taken payment for telling lies could also be dragged to court.

Perhaps even the vermin who trawl the web looking for posts like this one and then try to refute them with bogus science and bare-faced lies. Go on, I dare you.

Friday, 5 September 2008

More than a Second Life: an independent Virtual You

Today we can all have a second life if we want. Just sign up to World of Warcraft, Everquest, Second Life, etc. then romp around in a fantasy online landscape, killing dragons, shopping for shoes, or simply flirting with your fellow fantasists.

Thing is, your second life has no independence. Virtual worlds are still just a kind of playground, made more interesting by leaving your real identity at the gate. You still have to be there in real time: you can’t live your real life and your second life simultaneously.

Or could you?

For a more vicarious experience, imagine a virtual world where your virtual alter-ego interacted with that world – and its other virtual citizens – totally independently. The only control you’d have over your VU (virtual you) would be in setting up its initial physical characteristics, personality traits and values.

So you could predispose your VU towards beauty or strength, zaniness or earnestness, altruism or selfishness and so on. Perhaps you could spend some time conversing with the site’s AI speechbot to transfer some of your own conversational style. Maybe you could even give your VU some kind of mission: “search for your father”, “fight evil” or “lead others”.

Then you’d send your VU off into the virtual world, to interact with its other citizens. There’s presumably be some kind of economy and recreational opportunities. Chance encounters could turn into friendships or enmities, which could turn to group allegiances which in turn could result in feuds or territorial disputes. Characters may be able to learn from other characters or exchange useful characteristics with them.

(There’s been some interesting work on allowing robots to evolve new behavioural “rules” through chance meetings: that could be applied here.)

You’d get on with your normal life while your VU got on with his/hers. You could check in on them anytime you like, of course, you could even have alerts sent to you when your VU had done anything interesting – like crash their car or start a family. Then you could play back any encounters or activities for your vicarious entertainment (or not, as the case may be).

It’d be kind of like sending a real child out into the world. Some anxiety, some disappointments, but plenty of elation, and hopefully, plenty of humour. It would be up to the creators of the virtual world to ensure that there’s always plenty of “plot” going on (nothing like an earthquake or escaped rhinoceros to stir things up), but if people can spend their lives watching soap operas and Big Brother, I suspect that VUs could become an addictive form of entertainment.

Want to explore the concept further?

Thursday, 4 September 2008

What's next for human evolution?

The accomplishments of the bioengineering or GM industry have been fairly unspectacular so far. No superfood crops spreading over the Sahara, no fuel-producing carbon super-scrubbers. But it’s early days yet and presumably those things will come.

I’d like to look a little further ahead, to the day when nano-engineering and GM come together to make it feasible to manipulate the genes of living creatures – er, like us – without the need to actually create a whole new generation to see the results.

We’ll be able to change our eye colour, hair colour and skin colour. Have less sweaty feet. Bigger breasts, penises, or both. Better eyesight and better hearing.

Even more interesting, we’ll be able to shop for traits or characteristics presently only enjoyed by non-humans. Hallucinogenic sweat, anyone?

More soberly, given that our environment is likely to change considerably over the next few hundred years, what are the traits that would make the most sense? Here’s my list:

1. A second stomach.

Meat eating is on the way out. Cattle take up too much space, compete for food and biofuel, and produce tons of methane, a greenhouse gas that carbon dioxide can’t even hold a candle to. But our digestive systems aren’t all that good at processing plant food. A second stomach would be an enormous help.

2. Photosynthesis.

With more CO2 in the air, increased desertification and more competition for food, why not just get some of our nutrition straight from the air? All we’d need is chlorophyll in our hair – and an awful lot of hair, a great big shaggy pelt, really – and we’d be truly green.

3. Egg-laying.

Women aren’t going to stand for all this pregnancy nonsense for much longer. Us males are going to have to make a decision: either we undergo modification so that we can shoulder all the morning sickness and backpain ourselves, or come up with a solution that allows a couple to share responsibilities, like penguins.

4. Shorter memories.

Supposedly the natural ageing process will soon be a thing of the past and we’ll all live endlessly – or until we get squashed to death by our ever-multiplying neighbours in about 500 years’ time. Well, if I’m going to live that long, I’d like some hope of wonder and surprise along the way, not just an overwhelming sense of seen-it-all-beforeness. So that goldfish gene that makes every lap around the bowl a voyage of fresh discovery could be quite useful.

Got any more?

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Tax avoidance for all

When I discovered that the UK Inland Revenue leases their headquarters from a Bermuda-registered company, something clicked. (You'd hope something would snap for Prime Minister Brown, but it won't and that's the thing.)

It seems that tax avoidance has become so sophisticated that it's simply not worth the government's while to try to stop it in any meaningful way. They know they're losing billions, but they'd have to spend millions on investigations and still have the corporations run rings around them.

To justify their existence, Inland Revenue has resorted to harassing the middle classes. This doesn't pay either. In three separate and time-consuming attacks on my wife and myself, they have gouged back a grand total of £27.50 at who knows what cost to them.

OK, they still keep the middle classes toeing the line – we simply can't afford £200-an-hour accountants. But when a clever tax accountant and a crafty web developer finally get together to create the eBay of tax avoidance, everything will change.

Tax accountants justify their enormous fees by offering personal service. But already, online divorces are available for a tenth of what you'd pay for face-to-face service. Why not disintermediate tax avoidance?

You'd go online, browse for the shelter or scheme that best fits your situation, submit your details and the computers would do the rest. The more people who signed up, the less the authorities could do about it. They'd be stretched ever thinner, and would be able to investigate a smaller and smaller percentage of tax avoiders (who would pay an annual insurance premium allowing them to hire a real face-to-face consultant in the event of an investigation).

Let me make it clear that such a situation is the last thing that I want. I simply think it's inevitable. While the government and the diminishing numbers of PAYE taxpayers would obviously lose out enormously, the tax avoiding community would simply use some of the money they'd save to pay for the services the government wouldn't be able to afford to provide anymore, like education and healthcare.

In the meantime, of course, the government would have to ratchet up other taxes: VAT, duties on luxury goods and fuel – which would hurt responsible taxpayers intolerably.

Is there a solution? Yes. Simple prosumerism. Already corporations are slathering their product packaging with greenwash logos and carbon footprint labels. With similar logic, I suspect that most consumers would rather buy stuff from companies that pay full taxes to the country they're operating in.

All it would take is for a critical mass of marketers to set up an independent organization to manage – and publicise – a "responsible corporate citizen" label that could be displayed on packaging and in advertising and public opinion would do the rest. Result? Companies like Tesco that currently save over a hundred million pounds in taxes each year might find that it's just not worth it.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

A direct Google interface for the brain

I have a terrible memory. So I’d like a little wireless widget that plugged directly into my brain and allowed me to access the internet during conversations and so on, to find out exactly what and how and where and when: names and places and dates and recipes, punchlines and song lyrics and movie plots and family birthdays.

Obviously there’s still a lot of science to crack, but I’m quite confident that it’ll come along in my lifetime. While the human brain is vastly more complex than even the most powerful supercomputer, they don’t seem to be utterly alien to one another. It would seem to me that the main problem to overcome is to figure out the ‘software’ that drives the brain’s physical structure and causes electrical impulses to travel in just the right way through our neurons.

Once that’s worked out, there would be two ways for our brain’s software to talk to our widget’s software.

The first would be for the device’s own software to ‘read’ impulses from nearby neurons, convert them into binary instructions and transmit them to a nearby computer or network. Then when the required information came back to the device, it would reverse the process and hand it back to the neurons in neuron-speak, and the neurons would convey the information to our consciousness.

So we’d simply have to think: “Winner of 100m final in Athens Olympics 2004?” and the answer would hopefully pop into our heads a second or two later: “Justin Gatlin.”

That seems logical. But if you do key in the question above into Google, the answer isn’t obvious on the first page of results. Gatlin’s name does pop up, but only in terms of reporters speculating whether he’ll win the 200m final. (Proving that Google’s algorithms are still far from perfect. There must be plenty of articles on the internet with the headline: “Gatlin wins 100m.”) Anyway, there’d be a whole lot of to-ing and fro-ing involved before getting the answer, kind of like trolling foreign-language websites via an interpreter.

Another problem is the form in which the data is presented to the brain: as a visual, as sound, as a smell? However it came in, we’d still have to process it into information.

What would probably work better is to let the brain learn how to ‘play’ the device, kind of like learning how to play the piano, really. This makes sense because our brains are superior to any piece of computing, learn faster and are more capable of working with ambiguous results. There would have to be a lot of adaptation on both sides: the device would have to be modified over and over to make it easier for the brain to interact with, and we’d have to develop some kind of instruction manual to help us use its full potential. Eventually we’d get to the point where using the device would be a reflex activity, exactly like playing the piano or touch-typing.

So far so good. And hopefully we’d ‘experience’ the data as ‘information’ rather than in any particular sensory format, so there’d be little further processing required.

But imagine we had such a device in our brains: what would be the effect on our thinking and the way we store memories? Some research has already shown that people who spend a lot of time on the internet don’t memorise as much information as people without internet access. Quite simply, why bother? We’ve become information analysts, not memory banks. It’s simply the best use of our brainpower.

So, given a direct line to the internet, we’d theoretically become more mentally effective at working with information, but if our access went down for some reason, we probably wouldn’t have quite so much data stored in our brains.

But a far more profound effect is that we could effectively become networked to each other, able to access each others’ memories, perceptions and thoughts. For better or worse, mindreading would become a real possibility. Personally, I’d imagine that we’d learn how to prevent an intrusion into our thoughts. But possibly, the ability to all ‘think together’ could have an incredible impact on the potential of the human race and its evolution.