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Shaping the future

(One of the things that goes with being an SF writer is that people expect you to talk about, well, the future. Last week, engineering consultancy TNG Technology Consulting invited me to Munich to address one of their technology open days. Here's a transcript of my talk, which discusses certain under-considered side effects of some technologies that you're probably already becoming familiar with. Note that this is a long blog entry — even by my verbose standards — so you'll need to hit on the "continue reading" link to see the whole thing.)

Good afternoon, and thank you for inviting me here today. I understand that you're expecting a talk about where the next 20 years are taking us, how far technology will go, how people will use the net, and whether big shoulder pads and food pills will be fashionable. Personally, I'm still waiting for my personal jet car — I've been waiting about fifty years now — and I mention this as a note of caution: while personal jet cars aren't obviously impossible, their non-appearance should give us some insights into how attempts to predict the future go wrong.

I'm a science fiction writer by trade, and people often think that means I spend a lot of time trying to predict possible futures. Actually, that's not the job of the SF writer at all — we're not professional futurologists, and we probably get things wrong as often as anybody else. But because we're not tied to a specific technical field we are at least supposed to keep our eyes open for surprises.

So I'm going to ignore the temptation to talk about a whole lot of subjects — global warming, bioengineering, the green revolution, the intellectual property wars — and explain why, sooner or later, everyone in this room is going to end up in Wikipedia. And I'm going to get us there the long way round ...


The big surprise in the 20th century — remember that personal jet car? — was the redefinition of progress that took place some time between 1950 and 1970.

Before 1800, human beings didn't travel faster than a horse could gallop. The experience of travel was that it was unpleasant, slow, and usually involved a lot of exercise — or the hazards of the seas. Then something odd happened; a constant that had held for all of human history — the upper limit on travel speed — turned into a variable. By 1980, the upper limit on travel speed had risen (for some lucky people on some routes) to just over Mach Two, and to just under Mach One on many other shorter routes. But from 1970 onwards, the change in the rate at which human beings travel ceased — to all intents and purposes, we aren't any faster today than we were when the Comet and Boeing 707 airliners first flew.

We can plot this increase in travel speed on a graph — better still, plot the increase in maximum possible speed — and it looks quite pretty; it's a classic sigmoid curve, initially rising slowly, then with the rate of change peaking between 1920 and 1950, before tapering off again after 1970. Today, the fastest vehicle ever built, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, en route to Pluto, is moving at approximately 21 kilometres per second — only twice as fast as an Apollo spacecraft from the late-1960s. Forty-five years to double the maximum velocity; back in the 1930s it was happening in less than a decade.

One side-effect of faster travel was that people traveled more. A brief google told me that in 1900, the average American traveled 210 miles per year by steam-traction railroad, and 130 miles by electric railways. Today, comparable travel figures are 16,000 miles by road and air — a fifty-fold increase in distance traveled. I'd like to note that the new transport technologies consume one-fifth the energy per passenger-kilometer, but overall energy consumption is much higher because of the distances involved. We probably don't spend significantly more hours per year aboard aircraft that our 1900-period ancestors spent aboard steam trains, but at twenty times the velocity — or more — we travel much further and consume energy faster while we're doing so.


Around 1950, everyone tended to look at what the future held in terms of improvements in transportation speed.

But as we know now, that wasn't where the big improvements were going to come from. The automation of information systems just weren't on the map, other than in the crudest sense — punched card sorting and collating machines and desktop calculators.

We can plot a graph of computing power against time that, prior to 1900, looks remarkably similar to the graph of maximum speed against time. Basically it's a flat line from prehistory up to the invention, in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, of the first mechanical calculating machines. It gradually rises as mechanical calculators become more sophisticated, then in the late 1930s and 1940s it starts to rise steeply. From 1960 onwards, with the transition to solid state digital electronics, it's been necessary to switch to a logarithmic scale to even keep sight of this graph.

It's worth noting that the complexity of the problems we can solve with computers has not risen as rapidly as their performance would suggest to a naive bystander. This is largely because interesting problems tend to be complex, and computational complexity rarely scales linearly with the number of inputs; we haven't seen the same breakthroughs in the theory of algorithmics that we've seen in the engineering practicalities of building incrementally faster machines.

Speaking of engineering practicalities, I'm sure everyone here has heard of Moore's Law. Gordon Moore of Intel coined this one back in 1965 when he observed that the number of transistor count on an integrated circuit for minimum component cost doubles every 24 months. This isn't just about the number of transistors on a chip, but the density of transistors. A similar law seems to govern storage density in bits per unit area for rotating media.

As a given circuit becomes physically smaller, the time taken for a signal to propagate across it decreases — and if it's printed on a material of a given resistivity, the amount of power dissipated in the process decreases. (I hope I've got that right: my basic physics is a little rusty.) So we get faster operation, or we get lower power operation, by going smaller.

We know that Moore's Law has some way to run before we run up against the irreducible limit to downsizing. However, it looks unlikely that we'll ever be able to build circuits where the component count exceeds the number of component atoms, so I'm going to draw a line in the sand and suggest that this exponential increase in component count isn't going to go on forever; it's going to stop around the time we wake up and discover we've hit the nanoscale limits.

The cultural picture in computing today therefore looks much as it did in transportation technology in the 1930s — everything tomorrow is going to be wildly faster than it is today, let alone yesterday. And this progress has been running for long enough that it's seeped into the public consciousness. In the 1920s, boys often wanted to grow up to be steam locomotive engineers; politicians and publicists in the 1930s talked about "air-mindedness" as the key to future prosperity. In the 1990s it was software engineers and in the current decade it's the politics of internet governance.

All of this is irrelevant. Because computers and microprocessors aren't the future. They're yesterday's future, and tomorrow will be about something else.


I don't expect I need to lecture you about bandwidth. Let's just say that our communication bandwidth has been increasing in what should by now be a very familiar pattern since, oh, the eighteenth century, and the elaborate system of semaphore stations the French crown used for its own purposes.

Improvements in bandwidth are something we get from improvements in travel speed or information processing; you should never underestimate the bandwidth of a pickup truck full of magnetic tapes driving cross-country (or an Airbus full of DVDs), and similarly, moving more data per unit time over fiber requires faster switches at each end.

Now, with little or no bandwidth, when it was expensive and scarce and modems were boxes the size of filing cabinets that could pump out a few hundred bits per second, computers weren't that interesting; they tended to be big, centralized sorting machines that very few people could get to and make use of, and they tended to be used for the kind of jobs that can be centralized, by large institutions. That's the past, where we've come from.

With lots of bandwidth, the picture is very different — but you don't get lots of bandwidth without also getting lots of cheap information processing, lots of small but dense circuitry, hordes of small computers spliced into everything around us. So the picture we've got today is of a world where there are nearly as many mobile phones in the EU as there are people, where each mobile phone is a small computer, and where the fast 3G, UMTS phones are moving up to a megabit or so of data per second over the air — and the next-generation 4G standards are looking to move 100 mbps of data. So that's where we are now. And this picture differs from the past in a very interesting way: because lots of people are interacting with them.

(That, incidentally, is what makes the world wide web possible; it's not the technology but the fact that millions of people are throwing random stuff into their computers and publishing on it. You can't do that without ubiquitous cheap bandwidth and cheap terminals to let people publish stuff. And there seems to be a critical threshold for it to work; any BBS or network system seems to require a certain size of user base before it begins to acquire a culture of its own.)

Which didn't happen before, with computers. It's like the difference between having an experimental test plane that can fly at 1000 km/h, and having thousands of Boeings and Airbuses that can fly at 1000 km/h and are used by millions of people every month. There will be social consequences, and you can't easily predict the consequences of the mass uptake of a technology by observing the leading-edge consequences when it first arrives.

Unintended Consequences

It typically takes at least a generation before the social impact of a ubiquitous new technology becomes obvious.

We are currently aware of the consequences of the switch to personal high-speed transportation — the car — and road freight distribution. It shapes our cities and towns, dictates where we live and work, and turns out to have disadvantages our ancestors were not aware of, from particulate air pollution to suburban sprawl and the decay of city centers in some countries.

We tend to be less aware of the social consequences, too. Compare that 1900-era figure of 360 miles per year traveled by rail, against the 16,000 miles of a typical modern American. It is no longer rare to live a long way from relatives, workplaces, and educational institutions. Countries look much more homogeneous on the large scale — the same shops in every high street — because community has become delocalized from geography. Often we don't know our neighbours as well as we know people who live hundreds of kilometers away. This is the effect of cheap, convenient high speed transport.

Now, we're still in the early stages of the uptake of mobile telephony, but some lessons are already becoming clear.

Traditional fixed land-lines connect places, not people; you dial a number and it puts you through to a room in a building somewhere, and you hope the person you want to talk to is there.

Mobile phones in contrast connect people, not places. You don't necessarily know where the person at the other end of the line is, what room in which building they're in, but you know who they are.

This has interesting social effects. Sometimes it's benign; you never have to wonder if someone you're meeting is lost or unable to find the venue, you never lose track of people. On the other hand, it has bad effects, especially when combined with other technologies: bullying via mobile phone is rife in British schools, and "happy slapping" wouldn't be possible without them. (Assaulting people while an accomplice films it with a cameraphone, for the purpose of sending the movie footage around — often used for intimidation, sometimes used just for vicarious violent fun.)


It's even harder to predict the second-order consequences of new technologies when they start merging at the edges, and hybridizing.

A modern cellphone is nothing like a late-1980s cellphone. Back then, the cellphone was basically a voice terminal. Today it's as likely as not to be a video and still camera, a GPS navigation unit, have a keyboard for texting, a screen for surfing the web, an MP3 player, and it may also be a full-blown business computer with word processing and spreadsheet applications aboard.

In future it may end up as a pocket computer that simply runs voice-over-IP software, using the cellular telephony network — or WiFi or WiMax or just about any other transport layer that comes to hand — to move speech packets back and forth with acceptable latency.

And it's got peripherals. GPS location, cameras, text input. What does it all mean?

Putting it all together

Let's look at our notional end-point where the bandwidth and information processing revolutions are taking us — as far ahead as we can see without positing real breakthroughs and new technologies, such as cheap quantum computing, pocket fusion reactors, and an artificial intelligence that is as flexible and unpredictable as ourselves. It's about 25-50 years away.

Firstly, storage. I like to look at the trailing edge; how much non-volatile solid-state storage can you buy for, say, ten euros? (I don't like rotating media; they tend to be fragile, slow, and subject to amnesia after a few years. So this isn't the cheapest storage you can buy — just the cheapest reasonably robust solid-state storage.)

Today, I can pick up about 1Gb of FLASH memory in a postage stamp sized card for that much money. fast-forward a decade and that'll be 100Gb. Two decades and we'll be up to 10Tb.

10Tb is an interesting number. That's a megabit for every second in a year — there are roughly 10 million seconds per year. That's enough to store a live DivX video stream — compressed a lot relative to a DVD, but the same overall resolution — of everything I look at for a year, including time I spend sleeping, or in the bathroom. Realistically, with multiplexing, it puts three or four video channels and a sound channel and other telemetry — a heart monitor, say, a running GPS/Galileo location signal, everything I type and every mouse event I send — onto that chip, while I'm awake. All the time. It's a life log; replay it and you've got a journal file for my life. Ten euros a year in 2027, or maybe a thousand euros a year in 2017. (Cheaper if we use those pesky rotating hard disks — it's actually about five thousand euros if we want to do this right now.)

Why would anyone want to do this?

I can think of several reasons. Initially, it'll be edge cases. Police officers on duty: it'd be great to record everything they see, as evidence. Folks with early stage neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimers: with voice tagging and some sophisticated searching, it's a memory prosthesis.

Add optical character recognition on the fly for any text you look at, speech-to-text for anything you say, and it's all indexed and searchable. "What was the title of the book I looked at and wanted to remember last Thursday at 3pm?"

Think of it as google for real life.

We may even end up being required to do this, by our employers or insurers — in many towns in the UK, it is impossible for shops to get insurance, a condition of doing business, without demonstrating that they have CCTV cameras in place. Having such a lifelog would certainly make things easier for teachers and social workers at risk of being maliciously accused by a student or client.

(There are also a whole bunch of very nasty drawbacks to this technology — I'll talk about some of them later, but right now I'd just like to note that it would fundamentally change our understanding of privacy, redefine the boundary between memory and public record, and be subject to new and excitingly unpleasant forms of abuse — but I suspect it's inevitable, and rather than asking whether this technology is avoidable, I think we need to be thinking about how we're going to live with it.)

Now, this might seem as if it's generating mountains of data — but really, it isn't. There are roughly 80 million people in Germany. Let's assume they all have lifelogs. They're generating something like 10Tb of data each, 1013 bits, per year, or 1021 bits for the entire nation every year. 1023 bits per century.

Is 1023 bits a huge number? No it isn't, when we pursue Moore's Law to the bitter end.

There's a model for long term high volume storage that I like to use as a reference point. Obviously, we want our storage to be as compact as possible — one bit per atom, ideally, if not more, but one bit per atom seems as if it might be achievable. We want it to be stable, too. (In the future, the 20th century will be seen as a dark age — while previous centuries left books and papers that are stable for centuries with proper storage, many of the early analog recordings were stable enough to survive for decades, but the digital media and magnetic tapes and optical disks of the latter third of the 20th century decay in mere years. And if they don't decay, they become unreadable: the original tapes of the slow-scan video from the first moon landing, for example, appear to be missing, and the much lower quality broadcast images are all that remain. So stability is important, and I'm not even going to start on how we store data and metainformation describing it.)

My model of a long term high volume data storage medium is a synthetic diamond. Carbon occurs in a variety of isotopes, and the commonest stable ones are carbon-12 and carbon-13, occurring in roughly equal abundance. We can speculate that if molecular nanotechnology as described by, among others, Eric Drexler, is possible, we can build a device that will create a diamond, one layer at a time, atom by atom, by stacking individual atoms — and with enough discrimination to stack carbon-12 and carbon-13, we've got a tool for writing memory diamond. Memory diamond is quite simple: at any given position in the rigid carbon lattice, a carbon-12 followed by a carbon-13 means zero, and a carbon-13 followed by a carbon-12 means one. To rewrite a zero to a one, you swap the positions of the two atoms, and vice versa.

It's hard, it's very stable, and it's very dense. How much data does it store, in practical terms?

The capacity of memory diamond storage is of the order of Avogadro's number of bits per two molar weights. For diamond, that works out at 6.022 x 1023 bits per 25 grams. So going back to my earlier figure for the combined lifelog data streams of everyone in Germany — twenty five grams of memory diamond would store six years' worth of data.

Six hundred grams of this material would be enough to store lifelogs for everyone on the planet (at an average population of, say, eight billion people) for a year. Sixty kilograms can store a lifelog for the entire human species for a century.

In more familiar terms: by the best estimate I can track down, in 2003 we as a species recorded 2500 petabytes — 2.5 x 1018 bytes — of data. That's almost ten milligrams. The Google cluster, as of mid-2006, was estimated to have 4 petabytes of RAM. In memory diamond, you'd need a microscope to see it.

So, it's reasonable to conclude that we're not going to run out of storage any time soon.

Now, capturing the data, indexing and searching the storage, and identifying relevance — that's another matter entirely, and it's going to be one that imprint the shape of our current century on those ahead, much as the great 19th century infrastructure projects (that gave our cities paved roads and sewers and railways) define that era for us.

I'd like to suggest that really fine-grained distributed processing is going to help; small processors embedded with every few hundred terabytes of storage. You want to know something, you broadcast a query: the local processors handle the problem of searching their respective chunks of the 128-bit address space, and when one of them finds something, it reports back. But this is actually boring. It's an implementation detail.

What I'd like to look at is the effect this sort of project is going to have on human civilization.

The Singularity reconsidered

Those of you who're familiar with my writing might expect me to spend some time talking about the singularity. It's an interesting term, coined by computer scientist and SF writer Vernor Vinge. Earlier, I was discussing the way in which new technological fields show a curve of accelerating progress — until it hits a plateau and slows down rapidly. It's the familiar sigmoid curve. Vinge asked, "what if there exist new technologies where the curve never flattens, but looks exponential?" The obvious example — to him — was Artificial Intelligence. It's still thirty years away today, just as it was in the 1950s, but the idea of building machines that think has been around for centuries, and more recently, the idea of understanding how the human brain processes information and coding some kind of procedural system in software for doing the same sort of thing has soaked up a lot of research.

Vernor came up with two postulates. Firstly, if we can design a true artificial intelligence, something that's cognitively our equal, then we can make it run faster by throwing more computing resources at it. (Yes, I know this is questionable — it begs the question of whether intelligence is parallelizeable, or what resources it takes.) And if you can make it run faster, you can make it run much faster — hundreds, millions, of times faster. Which means problems get solved fast. This is your basic weakly superhuman AI: the one you deploy if you want it to spend an afternoon and crack a problem that's been bugging everyone for a few centuries.

He also noted something else: we humans are pretty dumb. We can see most of the elements of our own success in other species, and individually, on average, we're not terribly smart. But we've got the ability to communicate, to bind time, and to plan, and we've got a theory of mind that lets us model the behaviour of other animals. What if there can exist other forms of intelligence, other types of consciousness, which are fundamentally better than ours at doing whatever it is that consciousness does? Just as a quicksort algorithm that sorts in O(n log n) comparisons is fundamentally better (except in very small sets) than a bubble sort that typically takes O(n2) comparisons.

If such higher types of intelligence can exist, and if a human-equivalent intelligence can build an AI that runs one of them, then it's going to appear very rapidly after the first weakly superhuman AI. And we're not going to be able to second guess it because it'll be as much smarter than us as we are than a frog.

Vernor's singularity is therefore usually presented as an artificial intelligence induced leap into the unknown: we can't predict where things are going on the other side of that event because it's simply unprecedented. It's as if the steadily steepening rate of improvement in transportation technologies that gave us the Apollo flights by the late 1960s kept on going, with a Jupiter mission in 1982, a fast relativistic flight to Alpha Centauri by 1990, a faster than light drive by 2000, and then a time machine so we could arrive before we set off. It makes a mockery of attempts to extrapolate from prior conditions.

Of course, aside from making it possible to write very interesting science fiction stories, the Singularity is a very controversial idea. For one thing, there's the whole question of whether a machine can think — although as the late, eminent professor Edsger Djikstra said, "the question of whether machines can think is no more interesting than the question of whether submarines can swim". A secondary pathway to the Singularity is the idea of augmented intelligence, as opposed to artificial intelligence: we may not need machines that think, if we can come up with tools that help us think faster and more efficiently. The world wide web seems to be one example. The memory prostheses I've been muttering about are another.

And then there's a school of thought that holds that, even if AI is possible, the Singularity idea is hogwash — it just looks like an insuperable barrier or a permanent step change because we're too far away from it to see the fine-grained detail. Canadian SF writer Karl Schroeder has explored a different hypothesis: that there may be an end to progress. We may reach a point where the scientific enterprise is done — where all the outstanding questions have been answered and the unanswered ones are physically impossible for us to address. (He's also opined that the idea of an AI-induced Singularity is actually an example of erroneous thinking that makes the same mistake as the proponents of intelligent design (Creationism) — the assumption that complex systems cannot be produced by simple non-consciously directed processes.) An end to science is still a very long way away right now; for example, I've completely failed to talk about the real elephant in the living room, the recent explosion in our understanding of biological systems that started in the 1950s but only really began to gather pace in the 1990s. But what then?

Well, we're going to end up with — at the least — lifelogs, ubiquitous positioning and communication services, a civilization where every artifact more complicated than a spoon is on the internet and attentive to our moods and desires, cars that drive themselves, and a whole lot of other mind-bending consequences. All within the next two or three decades. So what can we expect of this collision between transportation, information processing, and bandwidth?

Drawing Conclusions

We're already living in a future nobody anticipated. We don't have personal jet cars, but we have ridiculously cheap intercontinental airline travel. (Holidays on the Moon? Not yet, but if you're a billionaire you can pay for a week in orbit.) On the other hand, we discovered that we do, in fact, require more than four computers for the entire planet (as Thomas Watson is alleged to have said). An increasing number of people don't have telephone lines any more — they rely on a radio network instead.

The flip side of Moore's Law, which we don't pay much attention to, is that the cost of electronic components is in deflationary free fall of a kind that would have given a Depression-era economist nightmares. When we hit the brick wall at the end of the road — when further miniaturization is impossible — things are going to get very bumpy indeed, much as the aerospace industry hit the buffers at the end of the 1960s in North America and elsewhere. This stuff isn't big and it doesn't have to be expensive, as the One Laptop Per Child project is attempting to demonstrate. Sooner or later there won't be a new model to upgrade to every year, the fab lines will have paid for themselves, and the bottom will fall out of the consumer electronics industry, just as it did for the steam locomotive workshops before them.

Before that happens, we're going to get used to some very disorienting social changes.

Hands up, anyone in the audience, who owns a slide rule? Or a set of trigonometric tables? Who's actually used them, for work, in the past year? Or decade?

I think I've made my point: the pocket calculator and the computer algebra program have effectively driven those tools into obsolescence. This happened some time between the early 1970s and the late 1980s. Now we're about to see a whole bunch of similar and much weirder types of obsolescence.

Right now, Nokia is designing global positioning system receivers into every new mobile phone they plan to sell. GPS receivers in a phone SIM card have been demonstrated. GPS is exploding everywhere. It used to be for navigating battleships; now it's in your pocket, along with a moving map. And GPS is pretty crude — you need open line of sight on the satellites, and the signal's messed up. We can do better than this, and we will. In five years, we'll all have phones that connect physical locations again, instead of (or as well as) people. And we'll be raising a generation of kids who don't know what it is to be lost, to not know where you are and how to get to some desired destination from wherever that is.

Think about that. "Being lost" has been part of the human experience ever since our hominid ancestors were knuckle-walking around the plains of Africa. And we're going to lose it — at least, we're going to make it as unusual an experience as finding yourself out in public without your underpants.

We're also in some danger of losing the concepts of privacy, and warping history out of all recognition.

Our concept of privacy relies on the fact that it's hard to discover information about other people. Today, you've all got private lives that are not open to me. Even those of you with blogs, or even lifelogs. But we're already seeing some interesting tendencies in the area of attitudes to privacy on the internet among young people, under about 25; if they've grown up with the internet they have no expectation of being able to conceal information about themselves. They seem to work on the assumption that anything that is known about them will turn up on the net sooner or later, at which point it is trivially searchable.

Now, in this age of rapid, transparent information retrieval, what happens if you've got a lifelog, registering your precise GPS coordinates and scanning everything around you? If you're updating your whereabouts via a lightweight protocol like Twitter and keeping in touch with friends and associates via a blog? It'd be nice to tie your lifelog into your blog and the rest of your net presence, for your personal convenience. And at first, it'll just be the kids who do this — kids who've grown up with little expectation of or understanding of privacy. Well, it'll be the kids and the folks on the Sex Offenders Register who're forced to lifelog as part of their probation terms, but that's not our problem. Okay, it'll also be people in businesses with directors who want to exercise total control over what their employees are doing, but they don't have to work there ... yet.

You know something? Keeping track of those quaint old laws about personal privacy is going to be really important. Because in countries with no explicit right to privacy — I believe the US constitution is mostly silent on the subject — we're going to end up blurring the boundary between our Second Lives and the first life, the one we live from moment to moment. We're time-binding animals and nothing binds time tighter than a cradle to grave recording of our every moment.

The political hazards of lifelogging are, or should be, semi-obvious. In the short term, we're going to have to learn to do without a lot of bad laws. If it's an offense to pick your nose in public, someone, sooner or later, will write a 'bot to hunt down nose-pickers and refer them to the police. Or people who put the wrong type of rubbish in the recycling bags. Or cross the road without using a pedestrian crossing, when there's no traffic about. If you dig hard enough, everyone is a criminal. In the UK, today, there are only about four million public CCTV surveillance cameras; I'm asking myself, what is life going to be like when there are, say, four hundred million of them? And everything they see is recorded and retained forever, and can be searched retroactively for wrong-doing.

One of the biggest risks we face is that of sleep-walking into a police state, simply by mistaking the ability to monitor everyone for even minute legal infractions for the imperative to do so.

And then there's history.

History today is patchy. I never met either of my grandfathers — both of them died before I was born. One of them I recognize from three photographs; the other, from two photographs and about a minute of cine film. Silent, of course. Going back further, to their parents ... I know nothing of these people beyond names and dates. (They died thirty years before I was born.)

This century we're going to learn a lesson about what it means to be unable to forget anything. And it's going to go on, and on. Barring a catastrophic universal collapse of human civilization — which I should note was widely predicted from August 1945 onward, and hasn't happened yet — we're going to be laying down memories in diamond that will outlast our bones, and our civilizations, and our languages. Sixty kilograms will handily sum up the total history of the human species, up to the year 2000. From then on ... we still don't need much storage, in bulk or mass terms. There's no reason not to massively replicate it and ensure that it survives into the deep future.

And with ubiquitous lifelogs, and the internet, and attempts at providing a unified interface to all interesting information — wikipedia, let's say — we're going to give future historians a chance to build an annotated, comprehensive history of the entire human race. Charting the relationships and interactions between everyone who's ever lived since the dawn of history — or at least, the dawn of the new kind of history that is about to be born this century.

Total history — a term I'd like to coin, by analogy to total war — is something we haven't experienced yet. I'm really not sure what its implications are, but then, I'm one of the odd primitive shadows just visible at one edge of the archive: I expect to live long enough to be lifelogging, but my first forty or fifty years are going to be very poorly documented, mere gigabytes of text and audio to document decades of experience. What I can be fairly sure of is that our descendants' relationship with their history is going to be very different from our own, because they will be able to see it with a level of depth and clarity that nobody has ever experienced before.

Meet your descendants. They don't know what it's like to be involuntarily lost, don't understand what we mean by the word "privacy", and will have access (sooner or later) to a historical representation of our species that defies understanding. They live in a world where history has a sharply-drawn start line, and everything they individually do or say will sooner or later be visible to everyone who comes after them, forever. They are incredibly alien to us.

And yet, these trends are emergent from the current direction of the telecommunications industry, and are likely to become visible as major cultural changes within the next ten to thirty years. None of them require anything but a linear progression from where we are now, in a direction we're already going in. None of them take into account external technological synergies, stuff that's not obviously predictable like brain/computer interfaces, artificial intelligences, or magic wands. I've purposefully ignored discussion of nanotechnology, tissue engineering, stem cells, genomics, proteomics, the future of nuclear power, the future of environmentalism and religion, demographics, our environment, peak oil and our future energy economy, space exploration, and a host of other topics.

The wrap

As projections of a near future go, the one I've presented in this talk is pretty poor. In my defense, I'd like to say that the only thing I can be sure of is that I'm probably wrong, or at least missing something as big as the internet, or antibiotics.

(I know: driverless cars. They're going to redefine our whole concept of personal autonomy. Once autonomous vehicle technology becomes sufficiently reliable, it's fairly likely that human drivers will be forbidden, except under very limited conditions. After all, human drivers are the cause of about 90% of traffic accidents: recent research shows that in about 80% of vehicle collisions the driver was distracted in the 3 seconds leading up to the incident. There's an inescapable logic to taking the most common point of failure out of the control loop — my freedom to drive should not come at the risk of life and limb to other road users, after all. But because cars have until now been marketed to us by appealing to our personal autonomy, there are going to be big social changes when we switch over to driverless vehicles.

(Once all on-road cars are driverless, the current restrictions on driving age and status of intoxication will cease to make sense. Why require a human driver to take an eight year old to school, when the eight year old can travel by themselves? Why not let drunks go home, if they're not controlling the vehicle? So the rules over who can direct a car will change. And shortly thereafter, the whole point of owning your own car — that you can drive it yourself, wherever you want — is going to be subtly undermined by the redefinition of car from an expression of independence to a glorified taxi. If I was malicious, I'd suggest that the move to autonomous vehicles will kill the personal automobile market; but instead I'll assume that people will still want to own their own four-wheeled living room, even though their relationship with it will change fundamentally. But I digress ...)

Anyway, this is the future that some of you are building. It's not the future you thought you were building, any more than the rocket designers of the 1940s would have recognized a future in which GPS-equipped hobbyists go geocaching at weekends. But it's a future that's taking shape right now, and I'd like to urge you to think hard about what kind of future you'd like your descendants — or yourselves — to live in. Engineers and programmers are the often-anonymous architects of society, and what you do now could make a huge difference to the lives of millions, even billions, of people in decades to come.

Thank you, and good afternoon.




I linked this and wrote "One of the things I like about Charlie is that he can, as E.E. Smith was so fond of exhorting us all to do, really think."

And then I thought..."Lensman Stross". Tee=hee, Charlie will kill me. What a mental image.

Regards, C


Your final point actually ties into the jet car thing. One of the main arguments against jet cars is that to have large numbers of people of varying competence in charge of jet-powered aircraft would be a lot more dangerous than the present road situation, and the consequences of accidents would outweigh the economic benefits. Eliminate human drivers and link the vehicles into some sort of distributed traffic control system, and that obstacle goes away.

(Of course, there is also the question of the availability of oil, though perhaps some means of electric propulsion could be developed that would work.)


Owing your own driverless car. It has been done before, via a still extant, albeit now rare, mechanism called a "chauffeur". (yes, well not driven by you.)

And when the time comes to sell the concept to the punters, that is how it will be done.


Charlie wrote: "what is life going to be like...when everything...is recorded and retained forever, and can be searched retroactively for wrong-doing."

Privacy technologies, allowing SELECTIVE REVELATION as in the work viewable via the links below to the Carnegie Mellon Data Privacy Lab, should be built into the civil data infrastructure.

For instance, in the case of CCTV camera networks, the Privacy Lab have developed an algorithm, named k-Same, to protect individuals’ privacy while they're under video surveillance. It turns out that the usual methods that thwart human recognition of an individual’s features on video – for example, those pixelated fields covering faces, body parts and brand-name consumer items on Reality TV – won’t necessarily fool face recognition software, which is advancing rapidly. Completely blacking out each face in a video clip would do the job, but also be of limited use if government agencies wanted to follow up evidence of suspicious behavior once they had a court warrant.

And so what k-Same does is automatically take the average values of individuals’ faces and from those values synthesize new facial images, then superimpose those over the original images. (It's a bit like the scramble suit in PKD's A SCANNER DARKLY.)Subsequently, if a crime occurs or criminals need to be tracked (and the time is likely coming when it will be possible for face recognition software to data mine very large-scale networks of webcams for individuals) then law enforcement or security agencies will be required to get warrants before de-anonymizing the faces on the relevant footage.
More privact technologies---

Sweeney's Privacy Lab is probably the most advanced example. But similar work is under way at Xerox PARC, UC Berkeley, and other places.


Charlie wrote: "what is life going to be like when ... everything they see is recorded and retained forever, and can be searched retroactively for wrong-doing...One of the biggest risks we face is that of sleep-walking into a police state, simply by mistaking the ability to monitor everyone for even minute legal infractions for the imperative to do so."

That's in a sense NOT the biggest danger and maybe you're still thinking a bit like a 20th century guy. Let me try to explain. Privacy technology -- and especially the concept and mechanics of selective revelation -- mostly began as a component of the Total Information Awareness (TIA) project, which was officially killed in 2003 by US Senate bill. When the politicians did that, they simultaneously wrote a secret annex of that bill continuing government funding of every technology EXCEPT TIA's privacy component, either making the relevant technologies into black projects at places like NSA (e.g. the advanced data mining efforts) or else outsourcing them to the private sector companies like ChoicePoint, LexisNexis and AcXiom (e.g the more prosaic data collection side).

As it happens, there were and are, anyway, hundreds of other data mining projects being carried on by the US government.

But TIA is useful to look at as the first publicly transparent effort to integrate all the plausible surveillance technologies into one comprehensive project. One specific TIA effort gives a taste of what could be done using advanced machine learning, neural networks, etc. TIA was called in to help the Guantanamo interrogators, who were a limited number of workers overwhelmed by the numbers of detainees and their data. Very briefly, at Guantanamo they applied a Bayesian classification system on the data of a small, select group of detainees who the interrogators were sure were al-Qaeda. Once the system was trained to recognize the profiles of al-Qaeda members, the interrogators used it on the data emerging from interrogations of all the other detainees. Claims from the interrogators, for what it was worth, were of 100 percent success.

Privacy activists are making various arguments to prove the a priori assumption that this stuff can't work (false positives, etcetera). The best arguments against neural networks and advanced machine learning technologies tend to be those based on the notion that neural nets are:
(A) good at recognizing common patterns like those associated with fraud, etcetera, but not so good at recognizing uncommon or absolutely singular ones like those associated with mega-terrorism;
(B) a "black box" from a social policy viewpoint, because you might not know why the neural net is profiling a given individual. Thus, it's not justifiable.

In the real world, though, some of this stuff does work and some of it doesn't so far. One of the high-up ex-TIA guys has sworn to me that they had technology that recognized terrorist activity with 100 percent success. They would say that, of course. However, TIA was four years ago now; vast amounts of money and effort have continued to be poured in this direction. Some of this stuff has been appearing and producing successful results on state and municipal levels of law enforcement.

So let's move on from using data surveillance to profile terrorists. How about profiling paedophiles, for instance? After all, such folks probably have websites they go to, specific behaviors, etcetera. And if you can profile paedophiles, what about tax evaders? Pot smokers? In terms of profiling technologies, where do we draw the line? (Here the relevAnt PKD might be MINORITY REPORT.)


An excellent speech, truly thought provoking. I've been concerned for some time now that when I read something about the activities of Paris Hilton et al I am seeing an echo from the future, and that terrifies me!

As to the driverless automobile, I think this will take even longer to happen than it has already -- the lawyers will see to that. Even if they have only 1% as many accidents as manually driven cars they'll generate 10 times as many lawsuits. I just can't see your average car company spending as much money on car control software as Boeing and Airbus do on flight control software, and even if they did it probably wouldn't be enough. Despite the potential to reduce auto accidents by 90-99% we'll just *feel* less safe in a driverless vehicle. And of course they'll be hacked...


Another consequence of the lifelog, total history, and the always-on connection of increasing numbers of people will be the rise of reputation economies. Over centuries, the idea of "reputation" will transform society as radically as the concept of money has over the last 3,000 years. I wrote about this last year in an article for the online gaming magazine The Escapist, "Game Design in the Transfigured World."



One thing that occurs to me is that often a technological advance will fail in the face of social pressures; thus, nuclear power, which was our savior in the 50s, is still in decline as a dangerous proposition.

So maybe instead of lifelogs, stored on cheap, ubiquotous 1tb storage sticks, we end up with laws governing and restricting the use of personal memory devices.

My thinking is this: the presence of 'the internet' into every facet of life has made it harder and harder for some people to get away with what they used to. Recently, a political figure failed to get re-elected because someone was not only present at a speech with a camera, but posted to a political blog that spread it far and wide. His own comments damned him, but they had help from the internet.

Considering that all records are making thier way to digital format, it's not too big a stretch to consider that most politicians and other people of power (CEOs, etc) are going to wish that they didn't exist.

Also assume that organizations like the RIAA and MPAA have a hand in this; getting concessions from governments to avoid the non-stop flow of pirated movies and songs over off-the-grid storage devices (assuming they don't come with an 811n link embeded).

Personal jet cars, or personal flying cars fell prey to social pressure. Such devices were certainly possible for the past decade or two. Making them safe enough for the average Joe, not so much. Still, you can avail yourself of a personal flying car today, but it requires you to drive down to the local airstrip to use it. The futurists of the past failed to consider the FAA. If it flies, the FAA wants a piece of it.

Your comments about driverless automobiles comes to play in this; once driverless cars are the norm, flying driverless cars could be right around the corner since, as you stated, the requirement for the owner of said vehicle to actually know how to FLY would be academic.

(Note the USA-centric view on this; substitute one's own governing agencies where applicable)

Then again, I never considered the possibility of intelligent lobsters on the internet (or the future incarnation, as it were), so it's only so much nonsense until it happens.

What is that old saying? "The future isn't what it used to be."


It has occurred to me that most of us will have to manage a number aliases, if we are to maintain anything resembling privacy or freedom.

If there exists any way to uniquely identify an individual, then there is the potential to connect any datum about that individual to all other data. Connect web surfing history with cellphone GPS tracking with supermarket purchases with credit/debit card purchases with employment associations with health care and treatment history with genetic code with . . .

The only defense I can see is the individual ability to break that identification chain with aliases, which cannot be connected without legal authorization. That, and a lot of disinformation.

Maybe, we will need several more kilograms, for all the fictional stories we make up about our alternative camouflauge selves.


Most of what you guess may well be true, but I think it's irrelevant. As Bill Joy put it, the future doesn't need US.

Many architectural and programming details still need to be worked out, but it's pretty clear that the hardware for superintelligent computers already exists. How long will it be before the computers decide we are an irrelevant nuisance?

Only a heroic and improbable effort by the human race is can present that from happening, and probably quite soon.


In "putting it all together" you say "there are roughly 10 million seconds per year." You might want to change that to, "there are on the order of 10 million seconds per year." On the otherhand a factor of 3 does not change the validity of the argument.


Caught an excerpt of your speech on BoingBoing. The 10Tb number in relation to 24/7 video, 365 days a year made me think immediately of San Francisco's Justin Kan... and other people well on their way to "lifecasting" everything they do and see on the web. Everyday applications of the things you've spoken about are not too far off!


Why do you hate America?


In Soviet Russia, America hates you!

(Sorry, had to - couldn't resist.)


In some ways, it's a step backwards to an earlier time. An average medieval peasant wouldn't have had the same concept of privacy we do -- he most likely lived in the same room as his whole family and some animals. All of his neighbors new what was going on, and he regularly confessed to his priest. He didn't get lost, because he had lived in the same place most of his life.

Even nobility in the Dark Ages wouldn't have had the same ideas about privacy we do -- their servants would have likely slept in the same room as them, or they would all be in the great hall.


The future is not further than you think.

Love Across Borders


I think that the NEXT BIG THING will be energy; The increasing cost of petroleum first of all. The last 150 years have also been predicated on a steeply decreasing cost of energy. No more. (the CO2 problem will feed into this, as well). What will happen? I don’t know, but it’s bound to be weird.


As for ways our kids are more fundamentally alien than we can imagine: They will have no idea what it means to be *alone*. Not really alone. Mobile phones connect people, MySpace connects people, Twitter (basically an SMS text message broadcast channel) and IM's connect people, and with the currently underway spread of the "Smart Phone" and unlimited mobile data plans (which combines all of these socially disruptive technologies into one portable package), the *next* crop of kids is going to have absolutely no idea what it's like to *not* be immersed in your peer group at all times.

Forget privacy, just not being connected all the time to your social circle is going to be a rare and tramatic event. Having anything we would call a "private" life isn't going to be a quaint notion, it's going to be a terrifying perversion.



Let me expound on this: Do you remember high school "peer pressure"? The idea that you had to think, act, dress, and in every way conform to the expectations of your social group, who you became part of mostly through common birthyears and geographical proximity, or be ostracized? Probably most of you remember it as something other people did, those of us from GenX that are still hanging on to relevance and currency by our bleeding fingernails got out in front of the social wave 20 years ago by ignoring the expectations of our peers, eventually finding different peers as adults.

Welcome to the brave new world, where your "peer group" can be selected from anyone in the world you share a language with. Where you are *never* away from them, unless you're a (presumed dangerous) loner. So on the one hand, you are liberated from peer pressure, able to find common interest and make common cause across geographical distances of not blocks, not miles, but continents. But then are part of a group mind, one node in an "always on" network, not an individual anymore as we would define it. Even your ideas and thoughts are of uncertain authorship in a world where knowledge comes not from books, but from a Wiki.

I have seen the future. It's full of pod people. "Borgs", in the Star Trek TNG sense. Resistance is futile, you will be made irrelevant.



This sorta feels like what we had back in the prehistory of the web. "Postulate that lots of people will publish things about their cats, and then postulate that search will not inevitably suck like Archie does."

The funny thing is that the first half of that is already covered by classic SF. Asimov's 1956 "The Dead Past"

spoiler alert through the end of this message

points out that any "look back on history" device that any author cares about can be turned into the perfect CCTV by just setting the distance into the past to about 10ms. And by the nature of historic viewing, you don't actually need to store anything. (I'm sure that there are plenty of fascinating things one could compuationally do with such a past-viewing device; mercury delay lines are just the entry.)

What Asimov *didn't* do half a century ago was connect such total information awareness with any efficient means of trawling through that. Well, here we are.

Since many classic SF short stories are in fact instances of horror, it's inevitable that Asimov's secret of viewing the past was leaked before anybody figures out how bad that is---and that's without search! All that's left is for the good guy to make some suitably noir remarks; IIRC, "let's see you put that mushroom cloud back in the shiny uranium sphere."

And then: "Happy goldfish bowl to you, to me, to everyone, and may each of you fry in hell forever. Arrest rescinded."

Ah well. We're all headed for the hive. Let there be image macros.



Your analysis is spot on; as usual, the only thing I can find to argue about is the exact values of the time periods involved and the precise limits of the technologies. But, hey, what's an order of magnitude among friends?

In the vein of looking for the advances beyond that we haven't yet thought of, there's a hint of the next trend after the current one poking out of your speech. The technologies you're talking about are intelligence and/or memory-enhancing techniques; you talk specifically about memory prosthesis, for instance. Part of that constellation of technologies is communication. The growth of communication beyond bandwidth and routing efficiency could be another level of intelligence in what is communicated, how it's communicated, and who it's communicated to. That is, instead of an enhancement to individual capability, we can have enhancement of social capability, by intelligently directing communication to and eliciting communication from members of a social group. And that social group can be dynamic in constitution, purpose, and communication structure on much smaller timescales than ever before. You can think of it as extrapolating Web 2.0 into Web N.0, based on automating more and more of the mechanisms of contacting and communicating with people, even people you didn't know beforehand.

One concrete outcome of these enhancements might be the formation of truly individual corporate entities: intelligent, perhaps superintelligent beings composed of intelligence-enhanced, but not necessarily transhuman, human beings embedded in communication-enhanced social networks that have enough intelligence to implement policy set by humans on timescales and over distances that even enhanced humans wouldn't be capable of using unenhanced communications. I'm not talking about hive minds in the normal sf sense; I'm talking about an extrapolation of eusocial organisms to a form in which the individual component beings are intelligent and self-willed, not subservient but a part of a social unit that's better integrated than any we know of now. Think of Karl Schroeder's "churches", only the individual members aren't spending conscious energy to perform their parts of the simulation. Instead, they are a part of the simulation in the same way that we are parts of the various social groups to which we belong.


Very interesting article. Reading it made me think and I make two predictions of my own:

1. people will learn how to develop and conceal their privacy completely inside their minds, without ever speaking or leaving any trace. that would be like a discipline they'll have to learn. the ultimate refuge. the only safe place.

2. learning will become very different. we don't need to make mathematical calculations by hand, we don't need to carry full paper version encyclopedia when we can browse wikipedia from the cell phone anywhere. so learning will become a permanent process, a cocoon enveloping us and opening up infinite possibilities for anyone; I for example am learning Japanese even tough I don't know any Japanese person IRL, just by relying on TV content. I can hold a pretty complex conversation and had no real contact with Japanese speaking people. Anyone will have access to any culture, any art, anywhere.


I liked the diamond-based storage idea, could you read it out using some sort of x-ray diffraction or some sort of NMR?


It's hard to maintain a secondary, private, identity, and it needs some mental skills that not everyone will have. It's a little like being an actor, or a writer.

And here's a couple of other things to think about.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex has the Laughing Man affair: a "cyberterrorist" who can hack lifelogs, hiding his face from every observer and erasing people's memories of him.

And there's been a flap this week about a feature of IPv6, and a technical feature that carried over from IPv4. And it was apparently enabled by default. Things are going to be screwed up by legacy defaults. Charlie mentioned old laws. Is that the only sort of legacy that can trap us?

Oh, and final passing thought: some people already think that an IP address is linked to a person. Mine is linked to my broadband line, with a router that is doing NAT. Will IPv6, fully deployed, change that?


My brother reckons he has an advantage in his work (statistician) from learning to use a slide rule, which means you have to be able to do some rough calculation in your head to track the decimal point.


If you want to stay anonymous or private, you don't simply need to hack lifelogs -- you need to hack the lifelog of everybody who sees you. And every CCTV camera you go past. And every shop or bank you do business with. Otherwise, data mining will turn up inconsistencies fairly rapidly -- the kind of inconsistencies that point to skulduggery, because they don't happen spontaneously.


Because in countries with no explicit right to privacy — I believe the US constitution is mostly silent on the subject -

Griswold v. Connecticut, Charlie.


Andrew L: Griswold v Connecticut asserts that there's an implicit right to privacy. That's a lot weaker than the right in the European Declaration of Human Rights (which is pretty much constitutional bedrock in the EU -- member states have to implement it in law); and even then, I think that the Declaration is too damn weak for the kind of abuse we're going to be handing out to the concept of privacy later this century.


Great stuff as usual.

Two things that you don't really get into here are authentication and identity. How can you know that the information you are looking at was generated by a specific person (or device) and that it is authentic. One interesting "solution" to this would be to dump your lifelog in real time to other people, and possibly to publicly accessible channels. This would make it virtually impossible for someone to alter the past record without causing obvious inconsistencies between copies. Just an idea, but one that seems to be happening today for data that people are afraid will be hidden for one reason or another (just look at the current attempt to suppress the leaked HD-DVD key). Just think what that would do to the idea of personal privacy.


That's brilliant.

You know, I read things like this and it just reinforces the fact that there are folks who are much, much smarter than me.

Fascinating essay/speech, much thanks.


Great article. I agree with the comment about medieval villages. I think that the anonymity of the industrial era city is an abberation. That said, you could hide things in a medieval village and people will do likewise in this new era.

If the safety of autonomous cars would make them required, why does the law currently allow cars that can do 300kph or even 190kph (sorry, don't know my mph conversions :( )? The status symbol pressure and the vastness of the industry lobby will make life saving legislation take a lot longer than rationality would suggest I suspect.


David S., well, that's what hard realtime systems are for. At least for the safety parameters.

And yes, I think the singularity is hogwash. Or at least, by the time we get there we won't recognise it AS the singularity - I'm thinking of three lines in Ken McLeod's _The Sky Road_ here, something like...

"I thought the singularity was supposed to be quick"
"It was"


I enjoyed this a lot. Interesting read.


Interesting read... the end of science has been done before though, Lord Kelvin said around the turn of last century:

"There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now, All that remains is more and more precise measurement."


Like Dan says, I enjoyed reading that a lot. I can't help but think that things will never quite reach the level of technology we've dreamed of. The internet is an amazing thing, but at our core - humans still do very human things away from technology, like walking the dogs, running round parks... more so in the 3rd world where technology (abundant electricity?) hasn't got a grip. I still think that because of 'blurry edges' where technology doesn't fit on its own, there will never be a complete overhaul of something we take for granted - (running water, personal cars, never being lost...?) until technology has spread so far and wide that it is inescapable. Just how far does technology have to spread until its inescapable?

There's no reason why you couldn't drop your GPS phone off in storage and wander out in to African wilderness never to be found for days... if you wanted... short of having it implanted, right?

Still, a great read; food for thought.


My view on AI is that we'd be too nervous about how an evolved-from-scratch intelligence would react to humanity, especially if it were embodied and capable of interacting with us, so that homegrown AI would be banned in favor of bootstrapping our own intelligences to be the first emotional machines. Lifelogs would be the beginning of this.

That means we'll take our human quirks and foibles with us as we transfer from organic wetware hanging on bony frames to machine intelligence. But as we do, I think one of the things to go with us will be privacy. Rather than less expectation of privacy, we'll have more of it... as we "sleepwalk into a police state" more and more people will come to value their privacy and it will become a Major Issue campaigning politicians can seize on where the popular vote is for more privacy, not less.


I often describe the unexpected social consequences of technology for people. The industrial revolution is really about making power available - in fixed locations - to do work. It caused large factories, labor unions and laws to limit exploitation by greedy people.

There was similarly a transportation revolution started by steamships and railroads. It is about making power transportable so we can move people and goods. You described the effect that people travel more. I think the more interesting effect is the development of the suburbs. We have shopping malls, people live in villages that have no services. In 1950, there were no shopping malls or suburbs.

The communications revolution starts with Marconi. It takes off with the development of the internet and because of increasing storage capacity, our connectedness is expanding rapidly. Social consequences are still not completely identified but there are many. online shopping, MySpace, blogs...

Connectedness by itself is threatening and not so interesting. You mentioned the Singularity. I'll relate it to "knowledge." DNA is a relatively permanent form of knowledge. It transmits significant knowledge from generation to generation. Periodically, it tries new things. After a few thousand years, the new things are kept if they work. Old things, however, are rarely discarded. Rather, they are ignored and never turned on.

Tools contain knowledge also. I have see a paleolithic hand axe. It is on the order of 100,000 years old. As soon as you pick it up, you will grasp it so it fits in your hand. You will recognize almost instantly as a tool used for chopping. This type of knowledge is also very permanent but it cannot change. Our brain is a wonderful repository of knowledge. It can be changed and refreshed with great speed. However, brain storage is temporary and volatile.

Your "diamond storage" is non-volatile but easy to change. It has great capacity. The vehicle for storage and retrieval will play a great role (software). Certainly the nature of the social change will far surpass the combined changes of industrial revolution, transportation and communications of the past 3 centuries!

Good speech.

Bob Ferguson


A very stimulating discussion - and stimulating responses too. It should be compulsory reading.

I investigate traffic accidents for an insurance comnpany and I put 100% down to driver error (a kind way of putting non-terminal stupidity, which describes most of us behind a wheel) and anyone who thinks they can resist no-driver vehicles should have a word with your insurance company (which will mean nothing to some 10-25% of us over here who choose to drive uninsured)

That said, I wouldn't like to be a paramedic on the M25 after a traffic control systems failure.

Passing notes in class is going to have a whole different meaning in the future.


quick note re ubiquity of cellphones: Austria has now reached the point where there are _more_ active cellphone-contracts than inhabitants. Just as a datapoint.


Ah, memory crystals... Now all we need is an underclass to lord it over with a big flying stone head and we're all set for the future :)

Enjoyable reading, thanks Charlie.


Donny@37 --- careful about that "we". If you google on the term "extropian", you'll find people (some with serious money) taking a remarkably casual attitude towards the discipline of dealing with constructed superhuman intelligences --- which is more or less the same discipline that Vinge (in A Fire Upon The Deep) referred to as "applied theology".

One such fellow of my personal acquaintance has repeatedly told me, in all apparent seriousness, that any threat to humanity from such an entity can be neutralized if we just toss in something along the lines of Asimov's three laws. But even if you believe such an entity would stick to the rules we initially gave it, and assume that "first constructed god wins", so you don't have to worry about what the others will be like, there's still the cautionary note provided by Williamson's stories of the Humanoids...


A brilliantly realised essay but still I will presume to make one comment. The major thing Charlie (that felt weird) did not mention which I expected him to, was the commercial/economic use of such widespread information of personal activities: Advertising. Most of the future predictions of the past century failed to recognise that the driving force behind most technological advances would be simply capitalistic gain at a retail level: Google owns very little compared to its value, it owns portions of an abstracted cyberspace but mainly it owns the ability to place semi-personalised adverts upon millions of screens. Many market chains and internet companies already spend a lot of time and money collecting and collating data upon their current and potential clients, if such large amounts of information as Charlie (it gets easier with use) details become available then targeted advertising a la 'Minority Report' will become common place.

There are some more subtle effects of such personalised advertising than annoyance: If the data available upon your personalised memory chip is a recording of the things which you thought about over a period of time then the advertising can be designed to get around your developed consumer cynicism: Your own particular defense mechanisms against advertising will be available to the advertisers and a relatively simple while loop will allow a bot to feed to your retinas, or worse still your memory chip, the idea that you want (or recall wanting) to buy something. This raises questions about the sanctity of the data stored upon your chip. Spamming will develop a counterpart; data mining of people's thoughts and desires as recorded in their memories. If you can't tell what you thought yourself and what might have been planted by a bot editing the content of your internal hard drive who knows what might happen? More likely, certainly initially, would be the case where the electronic memory does not quite correlate with the wetware memory with what consequence? Mental illness exacerbated or even initiated? I am no psychologist but a reliance upon a source of information about something as potentially personal is seductive and most jarring when it misleads or lets one down. Presumably the security industry would modify itself to deal with such invasions 'Make sure you're memory is protected by ...' but based upon the current dearth of effective security, which lets face it, should be written in at the operating system level, it seems we can extrapolate, after Mr. Stross.

All of the above presupposes that there is external access to the data recorded on your memory chip. Either the memory chip is inaccessible until physically removed from a specimen and placed physically into a computer. If this were genuinely the case then they may well be tamper proof. Humans have a wonderful ability to convince itself that bad things happen to 'other people', this thinking allows us to take risks and not spend all of our time worrying about dying. Similarly it allows us to think 'sending this sensitive information over email won't hurt', or more accurately not think 'sending this sensitive information over email might hurt'. Extrapolating, if the technology for wireless information transfer and the culture of not expecting personal information to be private follow the trends suggested in Charlie's essay then perhaps we have a situation as suggested by Queegmire above, that people can and will choose to dump portions or even the entirety of their life log onto public safe storage or to friends and aquaintances. 'You weren't at Robert's party? Well Sarah did this amazing trick you should have seen it, hang on I'll send you the memory.' Now you have seen it, through someone else's eyes. You haven't watched it but your recall doing so, almost. If such wireless transfers occur then they can be tapped, perhaps other information leaks through and no matter whether such things are illegal or not someone will be interested in their content.

Wandering into a police state is a worrying possibility of which we should all be aware but wandering into a capitalist new world where the notion of protected privacy was never conceived to have included the ability of advertisers to tap into your almost secret desires and momentary whims seems to me at least equally likely.

Comments welcome.


I'd like to direct attention to a small, not well-known, anime series called "Platonic Chain", which deals with just this theme complex. Take modern youth (Tokyoite teenagers), camera-and-web-cell phones, and a very progressive search engine. The series explores, in 24 15minute clips, what can be done with something like this, with particular detail on the social consequences.


>Ah, memory crystals..

Actually there are abundant presolar (nano)diamonds. They also have quite a range of carbon isotope ratios...

Andreas Morlok


Matt: I dunno about you, but when I browse the web I do so with about four different layers of advertising blocker in the way ((a) I use Firefox, getting rid of most IE-specific nonsense, (b) I use Privoxy as a filtering proxy, (c) I use the Adblock ad-blocking plugin, (d) I disable Javascript and Flash by default and only enable it if there's something I specificially want it for). It doesn't nuke *everything* but it helps, and I suspect in a lifelogging world, a lot of us are going to be spending significant CPU cycles on keeping intrusive spammers out of our sensoria.

Cory Doctorow has, IIRC, opined that if we get AI, it will be the end product of the spammer/spam filter arms race: spam filters are effectively administering a Turing test, after all, in trying to weed out machine-generated junk advertising; so a spam generator that can get past them is one that can pass a Turing test.


Martyn Taylor: Not only passing notes, but also exams.
Once online resources are a primary tool that we use, like calculators or slide rules, the nature of exams is going to be very different. If we really are trending to collaborative rather than independent work, then we're going to see evaluation of people as 'team members' be of significantly greater importance than their individual value. Maybe automatic assesment of lifelogs will be the basis for future evaluation, rather than one-off exams.



I had high expectations when you anticipated on the relevance of mass storage and high speed bit transportation to decline, much as the relevance of high speed human transportation has declined, either or not representable as a sigmoid curve. Yet the article mostly talks about the social impact of increased storage and information transfer speed. Very interesting indeed, but I do think that the real shock will come from the breakthroughs in biological research and the technologies that come with it.

Cloning, human extensions of machines and machinal extensions of humans, wiring human brains together to form superbrains ...

My quick rich scheme for the near future involves a device that recognizes a relative accross the street by coinciding DNA.

The concept of identity may radically change - we may never be lost anymore and always know where we are, but not be so sure anymore who we are.

Age will be recategorized. With a life expectancy of 120, a 60-year old will be middle aged. New economies are already arising from active age categories beyond current professional limits.

As most failures of the body will be (easily) curable, suicide caused by depression will become the prime cause of death.

While the information revolution caused people to form communities along common interests, genetic revolution will throw them back to the ancient bloodlines.

I could go on.


Driverless vehicles were commonplace up until WW2; they were called horse-drawn carriages. I have relatives born in the Twenties who tell of napping while driving home from a party or something. "The horse knows the way / to carry the sleigh / through the white and drifted snow." Driving while intoxicated was a non-issue, ditto underage drivers; perhaps we'll see greater toleration for public drunkenness once MADD doesn't have anything to complain about any more.


The phrase "binding time" is very expressive. I would even go so far as to call it "clinging desperately to time as it slips through our fingers."

Oddly, although few of us have anticipated "total history" to the degree that Charlie implies, I would venture that many of the Baby Boomers' children have the sense that we are shadows on the edge of some great change. Maybe it comes of having lived through the great transformations wrought by the advent of the Internet, of seeing a vast cultural shift pull the rug out from under our parents' world views. We don't know what's coming, but we know it will make us obsolete.


> Interesting read... the end of science has
> been done before though, Lord Kelvin said
> around the turn of last century:
> "There is nothing new to be discovered in
> physics now, All that remains is more and
> more precise measurement."

In SF it was done i.e. by Stanislaw Lem in "Wizja lokalna" (1982). Science done by humans is still done, but only as a hobby. Abundant nano-computers solve any real problem by simulation. And since the nanos can deal with problems so complex, that any human would have to study it for a lifetime just to understand the answer derived by the computers, nobody does anymore. Unfortunatelly, this is one of the book never translated into English.


I'm having trouble with "10 million seconds in a year".

Handy way of remembering this is "pi seconds == 1 nano century".


Hmmm... spam filters are a limited form of Turing test, but NPCs in MMORPG environments are routinely subjected to something a whole lot closer to the real thing...


The mostfrightening aspect is actually emerging AI. Machines that are smarter than us will eventually control all this information, and may put use it for purposes we cannot even imagine. These purposes may be benign, but heaven help us if we are viewed as a threat. Et tu, Terminator?


Interesting thoughts on driverless cars. As someone who doesn't own a car, I've often wondered why people are so obsessed with them, and so against public transport. Your mention of the four-wheeled living room is something I've thought of myself, talking to people with cars, and watching the hordes of people on the main road outside my house, who would rather sit in their own car in a traffic jam than go on the bus. But if, as you say, the next generation as to be less fussy about privacy, maybe they won't feel the need for a car, as long as there's public transport going their way. Or maybe the only sort of privacy remaining will be the personal space sort of privacy -- your whole life is searchable on the net, but you don't let strangers touch you.


You have ignored some actual facts.

The cell revolution will be killed when folks realize they are microwaving their brains..



It makes me sad to hear about the lack of jet cars, the levelling off of the increasing curve of personal travel speed, the continued dependance on oil, etc. I say with a fair bit of confidence that all of these things and more were possible, were invented, but were killed at the outset by the Kings of our age.

History is full of scientists who were ostracized by their peers, who were disbelieved by the public, oppressed by the church, hounded by the government, whose work was co-opted by the military, and who were killed or suppressed for inventing a threat to the economic powers.

The phrase "free energy", or "zero-point energy" invites ridicule from most, but that does not change their grounding in the proof of scientific experiment.

Yes, many things claimed as true are in fact disproved. Not all who are ridiculed deserve praise. But there are mountains of evidence that at least some of the free energy claims are in fact experimentally verifiable. Just try and sell it to the public, and you will find yourself visited by a few unfriendly thugs who will let you know your options--die, or go quietly and much enriched. After all, this happened, more or less, to Galileo, who ended up recanting his theories and living under house arrest for the remainder of his life. The publication of his works was banned for a century.

In short, many many things have been possible. All of our cars could be running off of essentially nothing. Like non-poluting, non-radioactive nuclear power plants, with no toxic waste and no need to refuel. But everytime this comes out, it is stopped before it makes it to the assembly line (or sometimes as the assembly line is being built).

So, the defeatism of having had our sci-fi hopes dashed isn't based on the actual possibilities inherent in our humanity. It is based on oppression. The kind of oppression that sees whole nations succumb to an empire. The kind of oppression that enslaved entire continents and forcibly made them worship foriegn gods. The kind of oppression that kept the poor, or the women, or the black or brown, from voting and having basic human rights.

What I'm trying to say is that: Humanity has a basic right to fantastic technology. That right is severely limited by the powers that be. When humanity claims and receives that right, whether through peaceful or violent means, humanity will have everything that science fiction can dream of, and everything that scientists discover.


Also, in looking at the technologies of today and tomorrow, etc, we usually miss what could be called the spiritual technologies. There are now, have always been, and will always be people who accomplish fantastic things through the power of their mind only. That is simplifying it a great deal, but the power of a lone human, without the aid of technology, probably surpasses anything we've come up with till now, and will for some time.

Few humans opt for this route of study, and few believe that it is possible for others to do, let alone possible for themselves, but nevertheless, this too is grounded in experiment.

Here's a possible explanation for why this is:

Science went wrong when it forked from alchemy. Alchemy was concerned with the material and the spiritual. With the experiment and the faith. With uniting all opposites. At some point it became forbidden for science to explore the "soul".

There are those who, in modern and ancient times, experiment with the life force--with what ancient religions and spiritual disciplines called "chi", "prana", or mana.

That old science of the study and technological cultivation of mana is undergoing a gigantic revival currently. Imagine an exponential curve of the technology of magic alongside the curve of the technology of computers. And if we claim our right, imagine an exponential curve of the technology of free energy, free travel, and every other fantastic thing imaginable.


I think the social aspect of communicating on the web is destructive to creativity because every idea has a name next to it.People are competing for group recognition and you can't just walk in and plop down a brilliant idea . We need more anonymous creativity .I'm not much of a coder but I have "spime" . Sites should be made where a person can add an idea anonymously and each idea after that is anonymous .That way no one comes in trying to charm the group. The idea could be represented as tree.Maybe user names could be kept by the administrator ,that way he could block disruptive users and maybe reward productive ones.


Root man @56: hah. I don't think so; if sufficiently convincing evidence emerges, folks will just switch to using low-power bluetooth headsets, or even infrared connections, to a radio stage at a safe distance. The industry will love it -- a chance to sell new "safer" phones to everyone, all over again.

Mark @57: I'll believe in magic when I see the replicated peer-reviewed reports of double-blind crossover studies confirming it. Ditto the "soul".


I'm prepared to bet that long before the world reaches this horrifying state, there will be a booming market for gizmos which alter,falsify all such data at whim.
The fact that that alien invaders have managed to infect much of the population with ant DNA, thus rendering them dependent upon being in constant touch with the hive does not mean that the infection will not die off, or mutate.
I mean your movements can be tracked by your mobile phone --- but only if you leave the damned thing turned on when not in use.


Fascinating stuff. Transportation changed the world in a similar fashion that Information is now changing the world. Much like the previous transformation, the majority of the 1st world will be affected in this transformation but will leave out the 3rd world. One suspects that brand new economies will be built and that old ones will be changed due to the emerging energy sciences and nanotechnology.

The optimist envisions a future where new technologies will provide clean renewable energy, information on demand, safe/fast transportation, healthy food in abundance and a high paying low stress, flexible careers for all. The pessimist sees invasion of privacy, deadly nanoparticles, a ruined climate, overpopulation, food and energy shortages, hyperinflation, pervasive war and terrorism and biolab created diseases running rampant.

Guess the real question asked is which scenario will dominate.


I doubt the true net-benefit of always-on recordation. You know what I do to things I think I'll need later? I manually record them and put it in a sorted order so I can quickly get at it under the circumstances I'll likely need it. I summarize what's truly important. I prioritize important things when I make note of them, and I put low-grade miscellaneous information (instruction books, meeting notes, etc.) in places I know if/when I'll later need them. What good is a big indiscriminate pile of information of years of your life that in paper form would look something like a wall of filing cabinets 20 feet high and 50 feet long? 90% of that information would be fairly useless. In searching archives of some always-on recorder, I would likely waste a lot of time trying to find what I need, and probably often think I found what I needed when I didn't really.

Intelligent memory is about organizing, sorting, remembering what's important. What good are computer search algorithms going to do you for always-on recordation? If you aren't intelligent enough to make sense of a jumble of information by identifying meaning, AND sorting and tagging it in to a motif as it occurs, a computer can't do that for you. At least, not for a long time until AI is maybe as common-sense and intelligent as we are. If that day ever comes, would this look to augment existing memory, or replace it with crutches? Sounds like a de-evolution to me. At best you would end up needing to relive lengthy swaths of recorded experiences (conversations, books, sights, sounds) of your life with tweezers trying to search for and grasp what was important.

Rather than being a productivity tool, I can see many people using technology like this as an emotional escape. Given the detail level, it would have a life of its own. Look back in vivid detail on the big game that you won in high school, the hot date you had, getting married, when your kids were young and playful, when you were thin and in shape, your vacations, parties, past friends, and youth. We're meant to have memories fade in order to seek to make new ones.


bballinger @62: what has net benefit got to do with anything? This is human culture we're talking about. Get back to me when you can quantify the net benefit of network TV in such a way as to explain why we have it ...

Cary @61: why should any one scenario dominate? That's rather a bizarre assumption to make, isn't it? Sort of like "in the future we will all eat food pills and wear big shoulder pads."

Peter @60: resistance is futile: you will be assimilated.


Charles, excellent speech. Very thought provoking.

One thought is that human nature hasn't changed much. All this information exchange, ubiquitous surveillance and etc. is getting put to use by creatures (men) who mostly like to eat, play, get laid, and go racing. And fight, as you mentioned with the happy slapping phenomenon.

With a sufficiently smart search structure, you'll be able to tell when people are targeting you. As in searching public nets for your image, location and information.

Your phone will identify people and things, one of the things it will be able to do is spot "threats". This will make for interesting developments in etiquette and law enforcement.

Two examples. First, Annie Lennox's house got trashed last week. Her daughter let slip on some social network site that she was having a party. Result, flash crowd. Hat tip to Larry Niven, turns out you don't need teleportation for that.

A -smart- network would warn Annie Lennox that a flash crowd was forming, she could then take appropriate action, such as hiring some bruisers to guard the house and sending a legal notice to all the flash crowd's parents.

Second, this clever hack from Sweden. http://www.hackaday.com/2007/05/04/gps-enabled-radar-database/

This guy combined a public database of police speed cameras with a GPS. He just obsoleted a few million bucks worth of copware with a two hundred dollar computer hack. A smart network knows where ALL the cops are, not just the stationary cameras. That obsoletes cops in general, pretty much.

Added tidbit, a smart network identifies occupations. I predict certain jobs, such as tax collector, will get very hard to fill.

Interesting eh? I forsee lots of personal reliance in the future, as collectivism relies on coercion and top-down management. Its hard to do that when EVERYBODY knows where the managers live and where they shop.

And I foresee lots of street racing. ~:)


The only thing we can predict about human behavior in "the future" is that we will probably share the same basic needs and desires. Extrapolating today's fascination with data storage and manipulation makes for interesting conversation, but I doubt it will evolve into the scenarios you describe. We are not machines and the human mind does not function like a computer. Emotions, hormones, and our struggle with the seven deadly sins will influence the future far more than terabytes of data packed onto a sliver of some crystal.


Interesting thoughts, thanks.
BTW natural carbon abundancies are closer to 99% C-12, 1% C-13


The Phantom @64: you're one of those Libertarians, aren't you? Good luck with your optimism.

Eliam @65: the only aspect of "human nature" that I believe in is our amazing behavioural plasticity.

For the peanut gallery: isn't it interesting how, when you get slashdotted, folks turn up to tell you exactly why your carefully thought out position can't possibly work ... in a single sentence?


From the peanut gallery? I hope not: I confess to having found this particular blog entry via slashdot but am glad to say that I don't fall into the category of telling you what is wrong with your position, certainly not in a single sentence, I am occasionally cumbersomely verbose.

Eliam post 65: Your note about human nature and chemical (biological) imperatives is true as far as it goes but somehow misses the point. The discussion is (and I think ought to be) how such drives and needs, extrapolated outside of Darwinian (and Dawkinsian) evolution by technology, will continue to drive the evolution of that very technology. This causes a feedback loop, as we are all often told the media is very good at telling people the people what they want. I am not trying to paint a picture of men in dark suits being 'the media' or even any singular (or narrow) intention behind the media. This is a perfect example of a complex emerging system. By collecting together society, at a number of different levels, and allowing and encouraging level crossing via newspapers, television and now, more than ever, the internet, the nature of the society, and hence the communications network, changes. This level crossing (a Hofstadterism I think) is what is so neatly described by Charlie's essay. What I was trying to say before I got distracted was simply that the fact that "We are not machines and the human mind does not function like a computer. Emotions, hormones, and our struggle with the seven deadly sins will influence the future far more than terabytes of data packed onto a sliver of some crystal" is exactly what makes the above discussion interesting and engaging. If we were somehow not to 'remain human' for want of a better phrase then guessing at the way humans would develop technology and how such technology will influence and be influenced by societies (increasingly society) would be a whole different ball game. That we can make accurate predictions about human nature and to a lesser extent human society is exactly what allows Charlie (and the rest of us tag-alongs) to have a framework on which to hang our predictions and guesses about future technology.

As before comments welcomed. More later after food and cogitation, a lot of people wrote interesting things.


Microsoft Research in Cambridge is already thinking about the ramifications of being able to store a video of your entire life; they have used this idea therapeutically with patients who have short-term memory loss.



Vannevar Bush predicted this in 1945 in As We May Think (mirrored at http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/194507/bush -- see the "memex"). It's still a great idea.


Maybe instead of cars, bus routes would work more dynamically based on where people would want to go. If everyone punched in their route, then bus routes controlled by computers would be able to tell you what bus to get on that happens to be going that way. Ridesharing could be another thing augmented by computers that would allow for less traffic.


Adam @70: I'm familiar with the article. (See also The Atrocity Archives ... and be sure to check the copyright date!) Nevertheless, I don't think Bush was really talking about what I'm on about -- his Memex was an early stab at hypermedia and the effects of largescale document storage and retrieval, and was truly prophetic, but his information store was essentially passive: it only stored textual and diagrammatic material that someone stuffed into it, and cross-linked stuff that humans explicitly connected for it.


The AI thing is frightening for many reasons, but one analogy that hits me home is the horseless carriage impact, where the population of horses decreased suddenly and drastically when internal combustion engines became commonplace.

Data processing has caused major job category changes (where are the bank clerks?) and an AI will certainly cause major dependency changes for humans and the services society requires.

A balance (and tension) between the "territorial guardian mentality" built-into our species wiring and the "progress, trade, and communicate widely" instinct, needs to be struck and maintained. This is the role of culture, and I think that Lessig's "west coast code" is getting stronger and may overtake his "east coast code" - we need to address the legal framework in terms of cultural impact - amendments to constitutions maybe...


Mr. Stross:

I wonder if you are aware of, or have read (the physicist and SF writer) David Brin's "The Transparent Society"? It was published in 1999, before the "Terrorism" threat. It is predictive, prescriptive and analytical in discussing the almost inevitable decline in our understanding of privacy. It combines both hope and fear in almost equal amounts.

I commend it to you and all your readers.

By the way, the speech was superb!

Rick York
Portland, Oregon, USA

Rick York


Thanks for an excellent thought provoking read!

We all know information is power and that a predicate of modern society is the disparate distribution of power. While I do not find it difficult to imagine ubiquitous public video cameras in the near future I am sure the Karl Roves and Dick Cheneys of the world will explain to us how, for national security reasons, it is vital that their meetings discussing which federal prosecutors to fire or what energy policies to adopt (cough Enron cough) not be recorded. Think of Frank Herbert's Dune and the 'no-chambers'. Sure, you can see Dick Cheney and Ken Lay enter the no-chamber but your recording will end there.

After all, war is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength.


If everything was recorded there would be no crime.

Who killed Jane?
Lets check her PVR.
Oh, Jim did it.

Who vandalised this wall?
select id from population where coord=(x,y) and time > yesterday and time

I doubt that would bother most peoples privacy concerns if that search was court ordered.

People have only HAD privacy for the past few hundred (if that) years. In history you had whole generations living in one long house.



This surely is a possible future, but not one I think is likely. I'm not exactly sure what benefit this would bring to society, how or why would it be implemented universally, from America to Africa? With jets, telecommunications, and computing, we are able to solve problems of distance and thought, but what problem does everyone hyper-blogging their own personal EdTV to the world accomplish but a ton of narcissistic SPAM for the future YouTubers of the world to have to filter through? lol

If you had to ask me what the future holds, it's the breakdown of distinguishing between the virtual and non-virtual worlds.


bballinger @61: You described a great number of steps that you take to organize your personal information. Most people are not this organized, and so they could benefit from a system to compile this for them. The technology to organize and tag this information automatically is not as far off as you think. Simply using face and object recognition, and OCR text recognition will provide a decent tagging ability.

The data in a lifelog is similar to the data on the internet: a gigantic and random pile that is ripe for data mining. A Google-like solution will be perfect for it. In fact, it probably will be Google providing the search.

I do share your doubts that such a technology would improve our lives, but it seems almost inevitable that it will happen.


This whole vision also operates under the assumption that we will have:

1) Police state, because I guarantee the majority of people will not willingly submit to this, or even be interested in pursuing it. What are we going to do? Record ourselves watching TV? haha

The collapse of the Soviet Union not to mention ancient Sparta have shown us that police states are inherently unstable. They undermine the essence of society itself, the humanity, and without that, civilization stagnates and crumbles. You know why the USSR collapsed? Depression!

2) AI, in the areas of visual recognition and sufficient interpretation of human social meanings, for purposes of filtering.

AI is as still as limited by neural science as it's been for the past 50 years. No one could even begin to understand how to write software that operates as distributed as the human brain. Let's see how well we can take advantage of the Playstation 3's eight cores, first, before we start thinking about writing algorithms that do something useful spanning trillions of cores!


As I understand it, Vinge's "singularity" is where AI R&D finally creates sentience in a scalable machine. For many reasons I won't detail here, I doubt that is possible. But the primary reason is straightforward. If we look at consciousness as a domain that connects the past with the future, then no machine can achieve our level of consciousness because it has no resolvable past. By comparison, every cell in our bodies carries DNA encodings (the so-called "junk" DNA) that date back billions of years.

Watching AI research over the years reminds me of the mythical Pygmalion -- will that cold stone ever spring to life? I don't see it, whether the object of their desire is made of marble or sub-nanometer transistors, it can't happen. Since the industrial revolution every generation tends to view its central technology as a defining moment, a turning point in human history. Perhaps all these turning points lead us in a circle, and we're not as far removed/evolved from the people who conceived Newgrange and Stonehenge as we might think.


There have been several comments about "the end of science" meaning the end of new phases of technological innovation. Not a chance. Technology is not science; its an art that uses the results of science. For instance, the entire run of Moore's Law in the 20th and 21st centuries so far is based on the accepted science of the late 1920's. And the next 2 orders of magnitude in device density are also based on that. It isn't until we start hitting quantum computing that we go beyond the basic quantum mechanics used by solid state devices.

Just wait 'til we start seeing nanotechnology based on the biology of living materials of the second half of the 20th century, e.g., membrane transport. Technology can often carry on for centuries after the science behind it is discovered.


I remember in 1970 reading that we would all all go to the Moon for our holidays, eat pills instead of food, local travel would be by monorail and escaltor/moving pavement - all by 2000AD. I beleived it. There was also some crap about using plastic cards instead of money, but that was obviously bonkers............


Very nice, although as you say the potential for abuse should give us pause for thought. I'm sure everyone here is familiar with cases of Wikipedia entries being rewritten for a laugh; if that happens with `total history' how can future historians trust it?


Andrew G. @16:

My thoughts exactly. There are still many non-city dwellers e.g. in small communities in 3rd world countries. There, a lack of privacy can be thought of as a survival trait. If you know where all your neighbours are and what they are doing, you're more likely to be aware when something goes wrong (injury, invasion etc.) and be able to assist (get medical aid, (raise the alarm etc.).

I wonder if the open-ness of young folk at MYSPACE and the like is actually harking back to more primal tendencies. After all, we are all still (ultimately) hairy apes. These days, we have access to shavers and depilatories.

Don't underestimate the influence of our biological origins.


I believe society will still choose to have the freedom to occasionally turn off these gadgets and get away from it all.


Just to say I thought it was a fantastic piece: I've heard too many tech presentations that assume that the only consequence of technological change is, er, technological change. I mentioned it on my futures blog (and forwarded it to my colleagues), and you can see the no doubt crude way in which I have traduced the subtlety of your arguments at, http://thenextwavefutures.wordpress.com/2007/05/14/the-future-of-technology-from-blogs-to-lifelogs/.


A few points.

There are already ways to store man that one bit in a bit, so the one bit per atom limit will be broken. Winzip/pkzip is the perfect example.

I think the implications for crime are startling too. If you have a life record you can establish an unbreakable alibi, or make it possible for others to prove you did it. As long as the hackers have a reasonably difficult time getting at your records. A 'black box' recorder for people!


The downside of aggregating all information because of ever shrinking storage media was well addressed in this story:

DRAPER, HAL (1914-1990) (chron.)
* MS Fnd in a Lbry, (ss) F&SF Dec 1961
17 X Infinity, ed. Groff Conklin, Dell 1963
Inside Information, ed. Abbe Mowshowitz, Addison-Wesley 1977
Laughing Space, ed. Isaac Asimov & J. O. Jeppson, Houghton Mifflin 1982


Charlie, I confess to a Libertarian bent, but I base my wishful thinking on some hard thinking.

First, I think you are totally right about the direction of information processing and storage. AMD announced their new quad core chips today, we are probably looking at 8 core before the end of 2009, 16 cores before 2012. 1 terabyte drives are $500US right now and dropping, holographic memory is coming on line "soon". RIM's new Blackberries have GPS, full web access, camera, phone, VOIP, text, and what have you.

Networks are getting interesting. We are starting to see a new thing in wireless, networks with no hard lines. Post Katrina a company networked New Orleans with wifi nodes and replaced the whole telephone system for a while. Pretty soon cell phones will be talking to each other instead of cell towers.

Then there's this tech talk by Mr. Van Jacobsen of Google. http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-6972678839686672840&hl=enHe's discussing networks from telephone systems to the next step past were we are now. Fascinating stuff. Bottom line of it is, the next step is to network actual data instead of the addresses of machines as we do now. In his vision, if I have a copy of Spiderman 3 in the "share" partition of my phone in Canada, anybody in the area who is requesting a download of Spiderman 3 will be able to get a piece of it from me and all the other phones, computers, buffers, streetlight routers and what have you that surround them.

That's an unsecureable, uncensorable soup of information. Communist China can't secure their own internet even with total control of the routers, and that's right now. How are they going to manage when there aren't any routers?

As all these technologies march forward, as more knowledge, materials and energy become available to individuals, less and less central control is possible. Radar traps only work if nobody knows where they are. Taxes can only be collected if government has a monopoly on force AND physical security for its minions.

Human nature is such that there are some things people will put up with and some things they won't. People put up with cameras because they don't intrude. They just sit there, you don't notice them. People don't put up with laws against recreational drugs, they find ways around such laws. Et Cetera.

Hence my predictions. Interesting times ahead. I look forward to the street racing in particular. :)


Ah, you're nuts. None of this "lifelog" weirdness will ever happen. You've forgotten two things. The first is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which tells you that the difficulty in locating a given piece of data grows exponentially with the amount of data you store. Crudely speaking, if you store every moment of your life, it will take many times your lifetime to access it all, or even a representative sample of it. You may be right that the cost of *storing* data becomes very, very small -- but that just means the cost of data will be determined by the cost of cataloguing, searching, and accessing it, which will rise until equilibrium is reached at some point far, far less than a total recording of history in your kilograms of diamond.

You've forgotten the role of economics here, too. You sound like fusion geeks of the 1950s talking about energy "too cheap to meter," or cheap endless robot labor that meant we'd all be awash in consumer goods and not have to work more than 10 minutes a day. Doesn't work out that way, because when something gets cheaper it just drives up demand until the price stabilizes.

Hence, computer memory. We have thousands of times more memory in our computers than we did 25 years ago. But, hmmm, the productivity of our applications -- indeed, our productivity using the computer, is hardly thousands of times greater. 'Cause all that lovely memory got sucked up in tons of eye-candy and sloppy RAM-wasteful programming. So all the marvelous effects you might have predicted when everyone had 1 Gb of RAM on his desk haven't happened -- because the mundane word processor of 1982 that squeezed into 16 kb now swallows 150 Mb when it boots. There is progress, yes, but it is far, far less than the plummeting price per memory bit would suggest.

There *will* be changes in the future from cell phones everywhere, cheap storage, yadda yadda. But they'll be far more muted than you suggest, I think.


I personally feel that the future won't be about progressing the technology of transportation of an individual as much as it is progressing the transportation of a need.

Transportation is merely another form of communication. It's communicating a need or a want to an individual. In older times, people had to go wherever the source of the need is to get it. Nowadays, we receive most of our wants straight to our computer screen, without ever having to leave the room. The limitation is that we can only receive visual and audio.

The current conflicts we find ourselves in, peak oil, global warming, are a direct result of society's flaw in thinking we should be able to go wherever we want and it doesn't matter what resources we expend to get there. Virtual Reality isn't just an attractive Sci-Fi future, it seems to be the one that expels the least energy. Why physically move, when you can transmit physical sensations, currently sight and sound, into bits?

I personally see advances in the near future in making VR tactile, and perceptible to taste and smell as well. Nanotechnology seems to have direct applications to being able to create touch technology.

If you look at how social networks are creating segregating demographics, as well as the rising use of Massive Multiplayer Online Games (World of Warcraft comprises 0.1% of the world population), I think we start to see an alternate future to a possible police state. After all, why would you want to be in a police state if you have a choice to opt out and just live in a different server.

And then you can get into the definition of what a crime even is. You mention jay walking - why would this even be regulated if there are no cars? Physical and sexual crimes, murder, and rape, is there even such a thing if tactile feedback gives a person their every fantasy if they choose to? If I'm not mistaken, most crimes are purely motivated by a perceived lack. Whether it is a lack of food, playstation 3's, sex, living in poverty while watching people living in McMansions, etc. What motivation to crime could exist if the playing field were so leveled? Even crimes caused by insanity sometime have social causes. Even though he was autistic, would the Virginia Tech killer have done his crime if he had not constantly endured abuse as he claimed?

All inequality is caused by a lack either of land, labor, or capital. In a virtual world, side by side with millions of other virtual worlds, land is infinite. In Jeremy Rifken's the End of Work, he addresses the issue of automata taking over agriculture, blue collar goods manufacturing jobs, and eventually with advanced enough AI, white collar service jobs. What this means is that labor may one day be fully automated, and all our necessities will be provided.

Simonde de Sismondi claimed in a response to David Ricardo's assessment that labor and the amount of employment is of no consequence as long as profits remained undiminished, "...In truth then, there is nothing more to wish for than that the kind, remaining alone on the island, by constantly turning a crank, might produce, through automata, all the output of England."

I don't feel sane people will walk into a police state knowingly. Police are there to "protect and serve". What do they protect? People from each other, people from their property. What about when your property can easily be replicated virtually, and look and feel just as real as the Jones's.

So before we start talking about flying cars, I think we have to really think about what the purpose of cars are. Do we really need flying cars? You say cars are marketed to us by appealing to our personal autonomy. Well if someone outlawed all cars right now, aside from all the economic effects, if I really wanted to feel the freedom of driving, I'd go buy an HDTV, a PS3, one of those vibrating video game chairs, and Gran Turismo. It's nearly just as good. And in about 5 years, it WILL be just as good.


What makes you think that the obvious and well documented stupidity of some laws will lead to their repeal?


Okay, say you're lifelogging. you watch a movie, or listen to music. WHAM, you have an easily accessible, HD version of that movie/music on your little diamond that's connected to the net, and instantly searchable by anyone. The MPAA/RIAA/Insert your country's Movie/Music assosiaction ain't gonna like that..

It also reminds me of Omar Naim's "The Final Cut". Perhaps Lifelogs should be completely locked down until one's death, and then edited for later viewing?

Also, you look at something while Lifelogging. someone else looks at your lifelog while they're lifelogging. someone else looks at that other person's lifelog while they're lifelogging. Xerox effect. There would have to be one hell of an algorithm going around getting rid of extraneous data, methinks..


Is there a right to lie?


tones @73: "Data processing has caused major job category changes (where are the bank clerks?)"

You may have this backward. In 1950, the Bank of America was realizing that it was going to need more bank clerks than it could get to keep up with the growth of check processing. They contracted with SRI to explore automated solutions. SRI came up with MICR, automated check processing, and the modern personal check as we know it.


Good stuff, Charlie; thanks. I find myself agreeing with a lot of what's been said here: the Internet is my generation's revenge for not being allowed to go to the Moon.


Very interesting talk. One thing I'd argue about is the degree to which people (our descendants) will be willing to adopt lifestyles so radically different from our own. Research over the last 20 years has demonstrated that much of human nature is genetically based, rather than a cultural fabrication. I would guess that something so important to us as privacy will persist as a basic desire. Kids today aren't so much giving up their privacy as they are presenting themselves to the world in ways they define: Myspace profiles, web pages, online writings, etc.

The other nuance I'd argue for is that technological progress tends to add to, rather than replace, what already exists. SF authors in their exuberance tend to ignore this. The facts are that people still ride bicycles and hike in the woods, still print paper documents and prefer paper books, still go to live sporting events, and still like to turn off their cell phones and get "lost". We don't have fundamentally different experiences than our grandparents did, just additional ones.

Finally, a technological subtlety to factor in is that storage capacity is increasing faster than either processing speed or interconnect bandwidth. Today's hard drives take more time to index or back up offsite than yesterday's, not less. If this persists, your diamond storage will be a useless inert (albeit pretty) lump of carbon. Yesterday's challenge was storing data, today's challenge is finding data (e.g., Google), and I believe tomorrow's challenge will be synthesizing data and extracting value from the exabytes of human knowledge (1-epsilon of which is junk).


Everyone is a hero to their destiny and everyone has their false idols. It is true, its the people working in the background that deserve the respect and they don't want to be looked at because they wanted to be just a common man. Keep to your parents to raise you right and set an example. And yes am kinda liberal but also conservative, but really I try to understand all points of view, please just obsess in doing the right thing.


...but will we be any happier?


Thanks. This is a good commentary on what you can expect within our lifetimes. I do agree with something like recording of your experiences throughout your life although I expect with the difficulties which are in place with national ID cards you can expect some form of backlash if this was not optional. Artificial intelligence, at least something which is recognizable as such, is also I agree just around the corner if it doesn't already exist. http://predicto.net is a useful site to see what other think.


Re: root man @ 56: One of the central tenet of any futures work is: "There are no future facts".



Complete history is something quite interesting, it would hold a mirror in front of the face of the human ape.

As we all know, history is a fiction, usually written by winners trying to conceal their shortcomings. All reports of the old Greeks and Romans are extremely likely to be completely screwed up and present a picture of the time distorted beyond recogition. (Historians might tell you otherwise, but not if they take their jobs seriously.) Having near obiquious records of all events in history might change that. We may wonder, where all the heros (and vilians!) have gone that the old tales keep talking about - the fact is, they never existed, they are products of fiction rather than historical events.


Wonderful topic
1. Not only will we never be able to get lost (possibly), but RFID or some sort of embedded GPS device will make it impossible for anything to BE lost.

2. What happens when I lifelog all of my experiences- and then start logging my emotions and thought patterns via some sort of electrode helmet (this is already available in a very primitive form (or so I read on slashdot))? Eventually, my memories and emotions are tied together in an external storage (or at least non-biological internal storage). That's a path that eventually leads to all of the transhuman postulates. Once I de-couple my thoughts, emotions, and memories from my biological body, then presumably amazing things start to happen.
3. Gives a whole new meaning to identity theft.
4. Imagine how you lived before cellphones and the internet. I remember it, but I hardly see how I even functioned. (I can see by the stack of unused yellow pages by my apartment mailboxes, that most people order pizza by looking up the number on the internet.) Now imagine how you would feel once you had total recall and access to a supercomputer equipped with all the bells and whistles? I myself find it particularly alluring, having struggled with a bad memory all of my life. Imagine no more struggling to remember someones name or where you had met them before. Imagine remembering where you left your keys. No more "foreign" languages. No more auto-mechanic needed to diagnose your (self-driving) car problem.
5. Just look how this article generated a hundred novel ideas in response, in a matter of hours- compared to the weeks and months that it would have taken just a decade or two ago. I find it fascinating and pleasurable that I am still impressed by the changes that have been wrought by the internet. Maybe that's what it will be like to live in the next few decades. A sort of constant sense of wonderment. The anti-future shock. Let's hope so.

Just some thoughts.


I looked you up, Charlie Stross. You are 25 years younger than I and can reasonably expect to see the quarter-century of advances you limit your predictions to. Moreover, you will by then have benefited from life-prolonging advances in biological sciences. I, by contrast, can look forward to perhaps ten more years of physical strength and mental acuity. Counted by years, that may be a third of the journey, but given the exponential nature of changes, it's far, far less. Anyway, biological advances, however impressive, are not galloping along at the rate of Moore's Law. Of the 2,400 generations since Homo sapiens came out of Africa, I was born just one too soon. I feel like I missed winning the lottery by one digit of one number. All I can do is howl in impotent rage and envy at your diamonds in the sky.


Jack Boyce @ 98

something so important to us as privacy

Us, who? Privacy is a relatively recent concept. Four centuries ago in European civilization it was available only to the aristocracy (and only part-time to them; the servants were watching) and the very tip of the urban middle class (which was less than 1% of the population). Four centuries before that it wasn't available to anyone.

It didn't exist in any Neolithic tribe visited by anthropologists in the last couple of centuries, and almost certainly never existed at the Neolithic level or before that. It didn't exist in small towns and villages in any place on the planet before industrialization as near we can tell.

If Charlie is seeing clearly, privacy is just a temporary thing that's about to go away again.


"And if [data storage media] don't decay, they become unreadable: the original tapes of the slow-scan video from the first moon landing, for example, appear to be missing, and the much lower quality broadcast images are all that remain."

And, if I had copies of those tapes stacked to the ceiling in my living room, in pristine condition, they'd still be essentially unreadable; the tape drives for mounting them no longer exist; even the blueprints (so to speak) to manufacture them no longer exist, and they can't be reverse-engineered.

Akatsukami's Law of Data Storage: the accessibility of information is inversely proportional to the product density of the storage and the intricacy of the method used. Pigments smeared on tree pulp and ASCII plaintext will be available to us for millennia; lifelogs written to isotopic diamond will be useless in a decade, because the V26.0 drivers for the diamond readers will have been discarded when V26.1 was developed.


John @ 105

We're all born one generation too soon.


I believe that singularity
will revolutionize everything and it
does exist.
Machines will built machines which are million
times smarter and faster than we
and the universe will become a place where these robots
do whatever they want and humanity will die.
I am 100% sure of this result


John I @ 105

Don't give up quite so soon. I'm 18 years older than Charlie, and I figure I've got a 25% chance of seeing 2050 if I take care of myself*. And that just might be long enough to hit the longevity jackpot.

Or maybe more than long enough. We just don't know how easy or hard, simple or complex, subtle or obvious the set of solutions to aging and premature** death are going to be. I suspect that it's actually going to be easier than AI***.

Either way, it's been one hell of a ride. I worked with one of the first satcom stations, watched the first landing on the Moon on TV, worked with computers over more than 7 orders of magnitude of performance improvement and lived to see commercial uses of quantum entanglement. Sure, in the most likely scenario Charlie gets to see a whole lot more, but he started later too. It's the same ride, and if it's really a sigmoid curve instead of the hockey stick the Extropians expect, then we're at the most exciting part.

* It helps that I picked my grandparents carefully.

** "Premature" is defined as "before I'm ready".

*** And I've studied AI as part of my professional training, and worked with AI experts. But then, my knowledge of, for instance, cell biology is second hand and mostly not recent. So I may be overestimating the problems I know about and underestimating the ones I don't.


Akatsukami @ 107

Not so much. The generation problem is quite solvable, if the engineers creating the solution are allowed to design it properly, allocating some of the cost of development to future compatibility. Most times, the company isn't willing to spend that money, hence Y2K and Zip drives.

The trick is to have a universal bootstrap, and be willing to keep all the old drivers around. You may need several kinds of storage to do it, if you go through enough generations, but it's doable. We use multi-stage bootstraps now, and common interfaces for different storage technologies (a NAND flash RAM looks just like a disk drive to the computer, just a few orders of magnitude faster, through the magic of pluggable file system drivers). The design concepts are all there, have been for decades. But it usually costs too much and takes too long for a commercial industry to be willing to pay for it. Not to mention standardization, which by definition can't create a standard that looks towards the future.


Dave Hutchinson @ 108

Damn, man, it took me 3 paragraphs to say that!


Carl Pham @ 91,

When you start looking at adding microprocessors at the end of each fixed blocks of memory, as is being experimented with today, you find suddenly that the powers of your big processor's search can be magnified by some pretty interesting code tricks. This code generation might not be viable for real world use, but give them a decade..

Bruce, well, it depends. If a cheap solution is found, well and good. If it's expensive... uh-oh. Do I need to go into details?


96: In 1950, the Bank of America was realizing that it was going to need more bank clerks than it could get to keep up with the growth of check processing. They contracted with SRI to explore automated solutions. SRI came up with MICR, automated check processing, and the modern personal check as we know it.

The same happened with Svenska Televerket (now TeliaSonera) and Ericsson in the late 60s - they decided to develop what became the Ericsson AXE series of digital telecoms switches, the world's first, on the basis of forecasts about the availability of operators in the future, as population growth slowed and wages rose.


SpeakerToManagers @ 112

It's a pity I can't be that brief in my fiction...


Dave Hutchinson @ 108, SpeakerToManagers @ 110

Pithy and witty, but not entirely true. The maxim applied to our fathers and grandfathers, but if Charlie S. is right, this next generation will eclipse in progress all that came before. So I'm going to miss orders of magnitude more than Grandpa.


SpeakerToManagers @ 116

True, if Charlie is right - and he makes a very persuasive case. But we've already experienced orders of magnitude more than our grandparents, or at least our great-grandparents. I have to confess the picture of the future that Charlie paints makes me slightly apprehensive; it's not so much a foreign country as an alien world. Although my great-grandparents might have felt the same way about the world we live in now.


Great article. If this is even slightly on target, then there will be a helluva lot of information in the future. Even now, there's too much information for one person to digest. Do you think that there could be a point at which scientific discovery stalls, because to get any further you'd have to wade through too much information to process? Carl Pham @ 91 points to the 2nd law of thermodynamics to suggest we couldn't manage that 'diamond level' amount of information - are we also going to reach an upper limit on scientific knowledge?


91. I think that you are slightly misinterpreting the second law of thermodynamics. That aside it still doesn't necessarily cause the problems you outline. Indexing on the fly, and collating of indexes which are in turn indexed on the fly combined with a graded retrieval system mean that vast quantities of information are not in the way of the 'good stuff'. There will still be a job for historians and anthropologists who carefully pore over lots of the lower graded information in lifelogs to uncover the rare treasure but for most purposes people will only search a tiny fraction of the available data.

94. There is no recursion. If you store everything you look at, that is your lifetime no matter what you look at, you can't cram more data into your eyes by looking at a running video than by staring at a blank wall. It may compress differently for storage purposes but the actual data of what you were looking at remains constant. Whether I watch a film or view someone else's life log the amount of data I generate has a ceiling based upon video resolution and sound quality (and a whole host of other such factors).

98. Lack of privacy will never appeal to people but most invasions of privacy aren't in the common consciousness most of the time. Certainly not mine. Along with being good at thinking things only happen to other people, we're very good at putting unpleasant things out of our minds. The 'kids' that happily put lots of information about themselves onto myspace (or any equivalent) may think that they are presenting their own carefully edited view of themselves online but many people can drag an awful lot of unintended data from such things, especially with a quick google search combined. I imagine that the wandering unintentionally into a police state, to whatever degree it occurs, will be due to this 'oh as long as they are only looking at criminals' attitude. The idea that 'they' will never look at 'me'.

In politics of all natures it is common to throw false accusations that will, by 'happenstance' uncover other uncomfortable truths, how much might this be magnified into a colossal public waste of time (and money) by such lifelogging? There are upper and lower bounds around these predictions of data storage and the truth will likely lie somewhere in the middle. The problems to be faced which Charlie mentions are common to the entire range.

116 (105). Could not each generation say the same? To later generations each prior complaint appears trivial in comparison to their own.


John @ 116

Sorry, John, and Bruce. I got you guys mixed up. Been one of those days.


Let's see - cameras recording your every move to ensure you don't violate scoop laws. Self-driving cars are mandatory. No independence allowed - not of thought or action. No privacy of even the most intimate sort. Say goodbye to the Zen of the open road, with your Porsche 911, from New York to San Francisco.

To circumvent/defeat all these things will require incredible resources, savvy, and time. To maintain that will be incredibly draining on your mind and spirit, to the point where you become increasingly less productive, hostile and bitter.

Since we're in prediction-mode, I predict that if this Brave New World comes to pass, the leading causes of death will be suicide and mass-murder.


Interesting speech! I find it concerning that people see technology as starting in the 1800's. In my mind it started with the dawn of man. The rate of change of technology seems to track major changes in communication. For example, written word allows technology to be passed over a generation. The printing press allows technology to be passed to people we don't know for uses we don't imagine. The radio wave allows technology to be passed over great distances more quickly, the internet multiplies the printing press by a factor of 1000 because it allows anyone to publish and subscribe, etc.

There also seems to be a major difference between written communication improvements and verbal communication improvements. The written improvements having a much higher impact on the rate of change of technology, and the verbal advancements having a much greater change on social aspects of society.(imo)

The most revealing example is the printing press. It allowed Galileo to create a telescope from a pamphlet published in England on Eye Glass Lens grinding. And there is a reason why the renaissance occurred after the printing press. Every field from politics (Democracy) to medicine, transportation to agriculture, science to learning took a major step forward in that time because ideas could be shared with people unknown by the writer.

It's interesting how the internet crowd concentrates on internet advances, when every field will see major advances in the next 10 years due to the internet, and the increased use of a common language (English) around the world.

Take for instance material science. It seems to me we are on a very quick path to understand the basic physics of how materials are structured. (Recent advances in measuring/sensing equipment have made this nano-technology possible) Once we have that understanding, it is a short step to being able to design materials for each and every application. This is a major difference from applying the available materials to best fit them to current issues.

The same material science will allow us to create batteries that make Electric vehicles Viable. Photo-electric cells cheap, computers faster, vehicles lighter, homes stronger, roads more durable, cloths extremely efficient, etc, etc.

What about politics, the USA became a great nation because it used the best understanding of governments from 50 published works to come to a vision of what should be done with all that knowledge to create a better government. China is showing that the next revision, using the technologies of today, will far surpass the USA model and will create much more opportunity for the advancement of their society than was seen in the past.

What about agriculture, if we can envision automated vehicles, we can certainly envision automated farming in the next 10 years. Not to mention genetic advancements in farming that can triple crop output. Oh, and it doesn't seem to be in the works, but it would be very interesting to see pesticide/herbicide free farming.

Again, we can look at every field and find major advances.

Getting back to the communication drives technology idea I would like to consider one more thing. What will be the NEXT major advance in communications. Could it be, a much better way to mine data on the net so you actually get the data your looking for, could it be human enhancements for communications without devices, could it be a new technology to allow us to learn much quicker so say we get all the learnings of first grade in 1 week and are able to grow our brains as our bodies develop?

When I look at the time-line of major technology advances for humanity and put it on a curve, the next point happens about 2020, the one after that about 2028, then 2030, and then we get into months of separation. Maybe the speech by Charlie is on target that we will get to a point when we don't need to communicate any better, but that sounds pretty hard to believe. I guess it could be "mind-reading" through data mining in then end....?

But of course, just my thoughts.....

Kurt N.


This confuses me: First you make an excellent case for why there will be no "singularity", then you seem to draw the conclusion that we're approaching that same "singularity". You explain how the personal transportation revolution, after a period of exponential growth, plateaued and stagnated. I see no convincing argument why this shouldn't happen to computational power and bandwith too. Indeed, we're allready seeing it in the case of computer power. New generations of CPUs spend significant fractions of the transistor budget on features that bump the speed by less than one precent. (Doubling cache size is a good example) The actual, real world gains from the increased speed are even less visible. There isn't really anything I can do on my modern PC I couldn't do on my Amiga 500. (Except communication, but that's a bandwidth issue.)

There is still a lot of headroom left in the bandwidth area, but even that will come to a halt sooner or later. And the internet hasn't really evolved much since 1995 either (some would say it has devolved into a commercial nightmare), despite the huge increases in bandwith.

The topic of AI is also one of the "futurists" favourite topics. The sad fact is, if you consider the standard "futurist" definition of AI, it hasn't evolved *at*all* since the 1960s. Try chatting with ELIZA, and then the latest Loebner prize winner. Is there really a substantial difference, despite the 5 orders of magnitude faster computers and larger RAM? There is no signs in the real world that we're approaching a singularity. If we, within 20 years get a computer good enough to control a car in city traffic or navigate a robot up some stairs without danger of falling over, I'm satisfied. I don't see how you can even draw a line (or an exponential curve) from that to a computer that creates the replacement for the standard model of particle physics. This more than anything else makes "the singularity" impossible.

As for lifeblogs. They have been possible for years, if you consider the lower quality versions. (one 10kB JPEG image a minute, and a 9.6kbit/sec GSM compressed sound stream is 41GB/year.) Is anybody makeing them? No. Why? Because why should we? It simply doesn't make sense.

And privacy: The owner of this blog would need at least two court orders in two vastly different jurisdictions to put a real name to this post. Others would probably need three or more. Obtaining my identity through illegal channels would probably involve a similar amount of work. It doesn't make me untraceable, but it means that I can only be traced by people who actually have quite a lot to gain by tracing me. And if I want to do something controversial, I'd hide a lot better. How does this rhyme with the "no more privacy" idea? And if I wanted to voice this opinion in an earlier age, I would actually be much *easier* to identify. We have never had more privacy.


Very interesting observations. Not to be a nitpicker, but there are approximiately 30 million seconds in a year, not 10 million. However, a factor of 3 like that does not invalidate your argument.



Further to Matt's point, even if you could somehow record in arbitrary resolution, such that recursively watching a recording of yourself could generate an infinite amount of data, any non-trivial compression algorithm is designed to eliminate duplicated data in a file, so the original recording plus the recording of you watching it would compress down to the same amount of data as the original would have anyway.

Any "TV screens" you happen to look at while recording your own lifelog could be stored as pointers to the recordings of whatever they were displaying at the time you looked at them, rather than a duplicate of that data.

This would also potentially deal with the copyright issue, since anyone watching your recording could be shown a copyright notice in place of that content if they hadn't paid for it (though if the future of media still involves the RIAA, then maybe I don't want to be there to see it).


Have you read "The Truth Machine" by James Halperin? Much of what he reckoned would result from the creation of an infallible lie detector would also seem to necessarily spring out of "total history".


124: David (and someone above), the 10^7 seconds in a year is an order of magnitude, Charlie used it in an order of magnitude calculation of memory allocation. Factors of 3 (e.g.) are assumed to be lost and gained in roughly equal measure during such a back of an envelope calculation.

123: Proxima, you are bang on about AI in my opinion. The 'real' progress is being made in perceptive psychology, a necessary forerunner I believe. The court orders are what would be necessary for the blog owner to track you down legally, not necessarily what is required just to track you down, if you are on a private IP and the logs of the host are sufficient then that's pretty much QED. The RIAA are busily demonstrating that getting the name and address of an individual who may or may not have committed a crime based solely upon IP address is not difficult for large corporations anyhow.


learning will become very different. we don't need to make mathematical calculations by hand, we don't need to carry full paper version encyclopedia when we can browse wikipedia from the cell phone anywhere. so learning will become a permanent process, a cocoon enveloping us and opening up infinite possibilities for anyone; I for example am learning Japanese even tough I don't know any Japanese person IRL, just by relying on TV content. I can hold a pretty complex conversation and had no real contact with Japanese speaking people. Anyone will have access to any culture, any art, anywhere.

And what happens when a set of EMP blasts go off? If we're two generations away from having everything critically integrated with these technologies, to the point where people aren't even ABLE to operate effectively without them, aren't we then leading ourselves to the brink of the volcano and blithely expecting that no one will ever have a motivation to push us in?

To the previous poster who mentioned an end to crime by ending "need", I suspect you're not factoring in the desire to control others. There are more than enough base impulses that revolve around the ability and desire to control and deny things to others, to more than ensure that crime will be easily present... which lays the groundwork for the previously-mentioned police state.


John @ 105

So John, You are 67 and about to start howling in impotent rage...

I suggest the following instead; call it a crash programme if you wish...

1. Optimize your lifestyle! (high blood pressure? high blood fats? not enough excercise? Eating all the wrong things and none of the right?)

2. Medicate! (any problem that doesn't go away with a better lifestyle needs to be agressively medicated, also you should consider prophylaxis against some ailments. What good is living to 100 if a stroke ate half your brain at 85)

The two actions above should significantly boost your chances to retain mental acuity into your 80s, at which point neuro protective drugs will most likely be available. By keeping up to date with the latest science you will increase your chance to outrun death.

and if all else fails there is always the desperation option:

3. Cryonics! Make a beautiful corpsicle


Thank you Charlie for posting this great text I think we all enjoyed on our "TechDay".
It was a lot of fun to have you around. And I hope you will provide us all with more such writings in the future.
And maybe you'll read for us again one day ;)



Marc@71: public transportation meets cognitive radio (or at least, the premise therein)?


As for me, I don't have have anything to contribute that hasn't already been said four times over (so many appallingly smart folks there are on the intarwebs). That said, if things really start heading in this direction, I'm moving back to Nigeria, specifically to the smallest village I can find where I speak the language :)


The problem I have with this (and I say it without any "chickenlittleism") is that, even though potential bandwidth will grow exponentially, energy production can't and won't keep up with the population's energy demand. I mean, short of somebody cracking "Zero Point Energy Transfer", our economy is so petroleum depndent that when the oil runs out, the gadgets will stop.

Uranium, coal, silicon, everything is mined with petroleum. Biodiesal won't replace oil because oil supports agriculture so totally that when the oil runs out the tractors stop and the fertilisers that created the green revolution can't be made, let alone delivered. Solar won't power this brave new world, oil mines the silicon and provides the rare earth elements that turn it from insulator to semiconductor. Wind, wave and geothermal may provide some basic energy, but not enough to run transport and high energy density industries like smelting or mining.

The future is not a singularity of runaway bandwidth, it's a petering out of advancement to a sort of energy enforced agrarian/low-tech hippy commune. Populations will fluctuate wildly then fall drastically as mortality rates rise (the oil industry drives the pharmaceutical industry) due to many not knowing how to grow their own food in a simpler way. Bring it on, I say, those with a brain in the head will always know where to find information for survival and free feed, just the rest of the poor saps out there are stuffed.


As an afterthought, if I'm wrong and you're right (and the ZPE generator becomes a reality) I'm with Chinedum Richard Ofoegbu@130 Except I'm off to deepest darkest South-West Tasmania with a few sheep...

For meat and wool, you dirty minded New Zealander!


While technology has advanced, human development has remained stagnant. Education hasn't improved even with computers in the classroom. Superstition remains. The 'science' of psychology has done nothing to improve the lot of those with mental disorders- some of whom now have powerful destructive forces available to them ... Which leads to the inevitable mention of problems in the Middle East and the US Administration- both hotbeds of mental disorder.

It is difficult to imagine that technology will improve our lives until these problems are solved. It seems that a lot of geeks prefer to live in a fantasy world while ignoring the chaos surrounding them.

... omphaloskepsis often ...

we're going to make it as unusual an experience as finding yourself out in public without your underpants.

You are nae true Scotsman, Charlie.


Upon further thought, advancing neuroscience is bound to play a role in whatever future present we eventually find ourselves in.

For all these millenia, we've been working with the same goddamn genes, body parts and brains. Because of this, we make the same mistakes generation after generation; we succumb to the jackbooted ambitions of an endless procession of Year Zero Men* and conqueror genotypes and Shakespeare's characterization remains perpetually relevant. Then as now, people were -and are - people. In an ever-expanding ocean of variables, "human nature" (and oh how I hate that term and every smug assumption with which it is fraught) has been the only constant.

That is no longer the case. Every month, some new datum about proteins in the brain and neuronal interconnections and the biochemical roots of behaviour comes out of a lab. Given time and research, a pretty solid Gödel-challenging model of the brain and everything it mediates will very probably arise. Take away that final constant and -- well, let's just say Shakespeare finally becomes obsolete.

*I know, I stole that term from you. Ain't Creative Commons grand? :D


I would like to first thank Charlie for his very thought provoking material as well as all of the delightful responses from the people in the comments. I was hoping to find an IRC or any other type of Chat room like place where I could speak with other like minded individuals who find this material interesting. I caught this article a few moments after it hit Slashdot and have followed it for the past 24 hours in an open tab specifically so I could garner a better picture of other peoples points of views.

Sometimes it can be difficult to locate others who have similar interests as my self and feel many of us could benefit by elaborating on these and similar topics in an organized and reoccurring scheduled gathering. So if I may, I would like to ask Charlie, Bruce, Dave, Mark, Andrew, and the others that I noticed commented a few times to please arrange a gathering where we can all wind down and chat when we have some free time! Or at the very least share with us where your able to find places where these conversations are taking place.

Thanks for your time, I've enjoyed the 60+ pages of reading :)


Proxima not sure if your around but if you are shoot me an email at spokenmystery@gmail.com (yes with a y not an i)


lol spokenmistery@gmail.com (with a i not a y) one of those nights...


There have also been some fascinating things going on with identity formation. The Image Board That Must Not Be Named has this weird committee identity named "Anonymous", which in this context is a proper noun. Who is this Anonymous? Well, all we really know is that he (oh come on, leave the pronoun alone) never forgives, is somebody you already know, and tends to DoS people who mention where he posts his internal monologue.

Anonymous hates the idea of lifelogs because he thinks anything with a consistent identity is a namefag or a tripfag or whatevar.

It's really weird. It's like libertarian Maoists on PCP.


Charlie, you're paying too much for that flash memory.



It makes me sad to hear about the lack of jet cars, the levelling off of the increasing curve of personal travel speed, the continued dependance on oil, etc. I say with a fair bit of confidence that all of these things and more were possible, were invented, but were killed at the outset by the Kings of our age.

You need to talk to an engineer, for your confidence is utterly misplaced.

Jet cars are impractical for two reasons, power and control - in the technical sense. You can build a jet car; it could have been done in the '50s. But it would be short range (you can't put enough fuel in it for anything more) and a cow to fly (you'd need to be an expert test pilot). Modern avionics can ameliorate the latter, but you'd still have the problem of having millions of - frankly - idiots flying what amount to guided missiles in and around our cities.

As for oil, we use it because it's cheap and convenient. There are plenty of other energy sources that can be used, but they are less cheap and/or less convenient. For that reason, we don't burn coal in our cars - but we do burn it in our power stations.


krissy @ 128

Sound advice, Kris, but as Bruce Cohen @ 110 said, your also have to pick the right grandparents. My father & mother each had 7 siblings. To those 16 (all dead), add my 4 grandparents (even deader) and the average age for bucket-kicking (or farm buying) was 72. Not one of the 20 made it to 80. Is it any wonder I have small hopes for my fresh salads, brisk walks and Lipitor? What's the name of your cryonitician?


krissy @ 128

Sound advice, Kris, but as Bruce Cohen @ 110 said, you also have to choose your grandparents wisely. My father and mother each had 7 siblings. To those 16 (all dead) add the 4 grandparents (even deader) and the average age of bucket-kicking (or farm-buying) was 72. Not one of the 20 made it to 80. Is it any wonder I have small hopes for my fresh salads, brisk walks and Lipitor? What's the name of your cryonitician?


Driverless cars. Man, have you ever tried to program a driverless car? It's easier said than done, no matter how much money the military pours into it. Besides, driving is fun.

That said:

- Human augmentation while driving is coming along in leaps and bounds. Proximity sensors, automatic braking, etc.

- Taxi routing has already been enhanced by information technology. Expect more efficient versions of this, eg taxipooling with some fancy route optimization. Summon a taxi by pressing a button on your phone, if it takes more than 3 minutes to arrive the ride is free. Increasing oil prices will also push this along.

- Driving while distracted should be banned. Expect mandatory EEGs, and eventually attention enforcement by Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.


Thanks John

I would probably consider Alcor, they have plenty of links to their competition though (one reason I would be inclined to trust them).

You can always try caloric restriction as a second to last resort, it has shown some benefits when initiated in adult age in mice, not as good as when "treating" juveniles... but beggars can't be choosers

Lipitor is a sound choice, if you couple it with omega 3 oil (I belive the standard dose is around 500mg daily) and ASA (AcetylSalicylicAcid) that should significantly reduce your yearly risk of a cardiac event.

I would also recommend more strenous excercise in addition to your brisk walks at least twice weekly. Biking or swimming are excellent alternatives that don't strain your knees. You should measure your pulse rate during excercise, during strenous excercise you should get above 80 - 90 % of max pulse (max pulse is approximated by taking 220 and subtracting your age)

hope you can make use of this


Charlie, I fear no amount of record-keeping can change history, which is written by the winners. Everyone knows the facts, but what meaning do we impose upon them? We can't agree on why we bombed Hiroshima or why we screwed up VietNam or Iraq; why would having more facts change what everyone knows? And yes, of course, bad laws would be enforced more ruthlessly, because that's how you keep power. Driverless cars and social change were a great feature of Zelazny's DREAM MASTER, especially 'blindspinning' or punching in a random destination. What I want, as my hair grays, is medical nanobots - quick!


Paul @145: Driving is fun? So is making holes in a paper target with a .45 -- but carrying a gun in public is still a serious matter, and so is driving: 3200 dead a year on the roads in the UK (and 15,000 seriously injured) say so, and in the world as a whole the death toll is around half a million per year -- getting into First World War territory.

I don't think we're going to abolish driving, but if we can confine it to recreational tracks I'll be a lot happier.

Plus, there's the global warming argument (which I didn't bring up):

Approximately half the energy consumed by an automobile during its lifetime goes into building the thing and then recycling it at the end -- after all, it tends to involve manufacturing over a ton of steel and other metals, which doesn't happen at room temperature.

Meanwhile, at peak rush hour in the UK, 94% of the nation's fleet is parked. Most cars spend the vast majority of their time gathering dust at the kerbside. Airlines go out of business if their load factor (proportion of seats occupied) drops below 70%; with cars, things are humming along at peak efficiency when it nears 5%.

A true on-demand auto-drive system, with vehicles guaranteed to show up within a couple of minutes, would certainly replace the need to own a car for lots of people. If we could reduce car ownership by 50% by simply making sure that the vehicles on the road are twice as heavily utilized -- see that load factor figure! -- then we can cut our private car energy budget by about 25%. (And we can do this without bleeding money out of the economy, because those hire cars are going to be more expensive than your typical cheap motor -- they need more maintenance to cope with the high mileage, and so on.)

Would you rather drive a Ford Focus, or have a chauffeur-driven Rolls show up whenever you call for it (and have the warm fuzzy feeling of knowing that the Rolls is better for the environment)?




On Sunday, Charlie talks about how we can make our computers remember in the long term.

Today, Bruce Schneier talks about how we can make our computers forget in the long term.



Although I disagree with Proxima, he had a similar thought to what I was just thinking.

He suggested producing an intermittent image file, but it occurred to me that if satisfied (for now) with mere audio, most of us have this capability right now in our MP3 players. My cheap little one records sound. If I keep it recording all the time, I could be making daily dumps into my hard drive.

Soldiers in John Ringo's A HYMN BEFORE BATTLE had these things in their AI units. I didn't think while reading it how close we are.

Thanks Charlie!


The net took a long time to evolve. Charlie. Google just happened over-night relatively.

If you are talking about Personalised Jet Travel. This one is in development. www.skytran.net It's all about transportation. Just punch in your destination, and you're there. We've been using the same device for the last few decades. It's called an elevator, but getting it horizontally. You need tons of cash. Inspite of having millions of advantages.

Addiction to cars. Privacy. Oil. Politics. Control. War. Peace. God !!!! What a chaotic connection.


Stanley, I've been on the net -- modulo a single six-month outage -- since 1989. I'm fully aware of how it evolved. (Hint: go look in Amazon for my web architecture book and then check when it was published.)

The key problem with sky cars is simple enough: the failure mode for heavier-than-air flight is not fault-tolerant. If your automobile suffers a mechanical problem, you can almost always wrestle it to the side of the road without major hiccups. If your skycar suffers a whoopsie, you'd better hope that (a) it's got a parachute and (b) there's nothing sharp and spiky between you and the ground below.

This is also a huge third-party problem. Put it another way: if a car breaks down outside my front door, I'm unaffected. If a car breaks down a hundred metres above my roof ...


As my pilot brother-in-law put it: "The failure mode for a Cessna defaults to fatal."


Bruce Cohen @106: Interesting points, however (a) I'm skeptical that privacy is really such a new concept. There is too much to be gained from secrecy for this to not be so; look up the breeding habits of the cuckoo bird for example. (b) If privacy was less abundant in the past, it doesn't necessarily invalidate it as a strong human desire. Substitute "good dental care" for "privacy"; I'm guessing George Washington would rather have not worn wooden dentures.

Daniel Travolto @109: Does humanity die, or does humanity morph into something new? Personally I don't think the battle is human vs. technology; rather it is human vs. human, enabled by technology. Today it would be unthinkable to be a successful white collar worker and never touch a phone or PC. More than that, we like the amplification of knowledge and power these tools give us. Cue forward to a time when technology is dramatically more powerful and personal than it is today (for example, direct brain-computer interfaces, large-scale memory augmentation, perfect sensory playback), and from today's vantage point we will have in effect merged with our technology. And nearly all of us will accept this without question, because (a) it will be a gradual transition, and (b) we have already done so (try functioning without PC/phone/email/www for a while if you think you aren't utterly reliant on them).


Charlie: great column. I've recommended it to friends at HBS.

Regarding automated cars, though, my head agrees with you, but my gut does not. I've learned to trust my intuition on certain occasions, and this seems to be one of them. Is there any place that we can bet a substantial amount of money that automated cars will not be commonplace by date X? I'll take bets out to 2200, although they'll probably be a bit hard to collect.

I should probably mention here that I wrecked my own Ford Focus pretty thoroughly doing 95 mph on the Merritt Parkway around seven months ago. So like I said, my head agrees with you, but there's a flaw in the logic somewhere that my conscious mind hasn't quite been able to articulate yet. Therefore: bet?


This is a wonderful article. Hats off to Stross As Futurist! There are many, many things to which I might respond, but your commenters have hit some of them already. One that resonated for me:

"Folks with early stage neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimers: with voice tagging and some sophisticated searching, it's a memory prosthesis."

This is exactly what I wrote about in "Stop-It-Now" [Tomorrow Speculative Fiction, ed. Algis Budrys, Jun 1995] The Unifont Company, Inc., $4.50
First Final Ballot: Nebula Award for Best Short Story of the Year, receiving more written recommendations than any other story.

I wanted to make up a malady akin to Yuppie Alzheimers, use it to ruin a putative techno-Utopian future, and twist the knife a little more.

When you start to lose your long-term memory (in this case as a side-effect of a popular addictive euphoric with no short-term problems) then you come to utterly depend on a super-PDA as a crutch. So the crime becomes common: steal someone's memory crutch and sell them back their own life. Whole new meaning to "identity theft."

This story was told from the viewpoint of a recovering addict whose life was stolen, and he turns out to be an unreliable narrator with a nasty twist in the final sentence. In retrospect, the style was good because it was similar to that of Mr. Stross. Almost always, he is the better fiction author than I, though I still claim some points for poetry and Mathematics.


Noel: I suspect your gut feeling is based on the "cars = freedom" association that's been so carefully inculcated in us over the past fifty years by the automobile industry's advertising campaigns.

If we look at cars in the frame of "this machine kills 15,000 people a year and maims another 60,000 (in the US), because it's misused by ordinary people; and half of those victims are innocent by-standers: if we mandated automatic controls we could reduce those figures by 90-95%" it looks very different.

(In fact, it looks like the argument for gun control, without the second amendment and the obfuscating arguments that guns save lives: because if we've all got robot chauffeurs, nobody needs to drive. And the argument against driving -- that it needlessly puts other people at risk -- is pretty compelling.)


An easy association to inculcate, because I get a hell of a lot more utility from my personal car than I do from my personal firearms.


Tnere aren't too many people these days who require the use of firearms in their daily lives, especially in the more urban areas of the world where about 95% of the population lives. So the arguments for the ownership of guns have changed over time, from "You're really going to need something to kill snakes and other dangerous animals before they kill you" to "Your status as a {free, masculine, feminine, safe} citizen is in jeopardy without a weapon".

Similarly, the need for a personal vehicle is (or at least could easily be) rendered much less important in urban areas with alternative forms of transport. So the arguments have changed from "You really need a vehicle to get you to and from the distant places where you need to work and shop" to "Your status as a {sexually-attractive, important, respectable, creative} person is in jeopardy without the appropriately-styled vehicle".

And in both cases, the new arguments have been carefully tailored to be at least as persuasive as the old. This is why technological and social change involves marketing: to find and promulgate arguments that persuade in the face of the marketing of existing life styles. DId you think it was about reasoned argument?


Excellent article.

On the recurring theme of memory, I feel like I've already outsourced my limited grasp of map-reading to my in-car GPS. If it's lost, I'm lost. And it does get lost, in the sense that sometimes it can't see a satellite, or it can't find the postcode I want.

On the theme of identity, the ultimate identification will be an extremely high-res GPS reference crossed with an extremely accurate time stamp - both of which must be enshrined in a near-tamperproof system. As was mentioned earlier, a lifelog could often be validated by other lifelogs and public cctv. A day to day action such as buying a loaf of bread could be reduced to your time/space coordinates intersecting directly with the coordinates of a loaf of bread in a shop and proceeding to leave the shop with you. (Of course, RFID already has this covered right now... see how many tyre manufacturers already embed RFID tags in their products).

Sorry for the brain-dump and also sorry for being late to the party!


Right, Charlie, I understood your argument. It's quite logically compelling. What I don't accept is that it's politically compelling. Please note my country's attitude towards even more-logically compelling gun laws. People are willing to pay to do risky things that give them satisfaction, and they are often unwilling to pay to prevent risky things that harm others. Democratic politics reflects that.

We accept the underlying facts. Given them, you think cars will go the way of smoking. I think they'll go the way of guns. Both positions are reasonable.

Therefore, I propose a bet: $1000 in today's money, adjusted for nominal GDP growth, that automated cars will not be mandatory in the United States by date X.

We could also go to longbets.com, if you don't think it possible for user-operated cars to be banned on most public streets within our lifetime. Deal?


Spiritu Ex Machina

Millennia ago as our ancestors stacked one rock upon another to construct the first shelter in the first cluster of shelters in what would become the first town of the first civilization, one of the brightest in the group (let's call him Cousin Og) realized that rocks were pretty heavy and that there was a limit to the size rock that he could lift. (Coincidentally, this was also the first time that Mrs. Og gave that look of disapproval because the neighbor's house was built of bigger, shinier rocks--but I digress). This now henpecked and Paleolithic cousin discovered that when he wedged a stick under one side of the large rock and pressed down, he could then move that which he was incapable of with his directly applied strength. He thus discovered leverage (launching the first Hedge Fund, I imagine).

Futurisms and Techno-philosophy fail most when they fail to consider advancements within this context. Every device we build and every machine or process we design is a leverage upon what we already possess. Computers work because they run programs that we create. We work them over and over again--often thousands of times--until that set of instructions works well. Then we let that machine do it again for us efficiently. The computer and software that I am using right now is simply the leveraged millions of man-hours brought to efficiency to build my terminal, write the software, and link the whole mess together.

Specialization is a form of leverage. In the GPS world, specialization allows Garmin and Galileo to get very very good at mapping places and finding people (and saving a lot of trees and frustration in the process). This allows me to be very very good at......well, I'll think of something later; but you get my point.

As memory chips advance and becomes cheaper, we are simply finding new and unique ways to leverage our own memories and resources--to "remember" and access more; and to get more memory from whatever resources we already have, both physical and mental. Ken Burnes (the film documentarian) has made a career out of reading the letters and journals of Civil War era citizens into a microphone to record and display what, for those citizens, was memory. Digital memory is simply a more efficient version--it is leverage against what is for us a natural instinct--taking notes to communicate and remember.

Will we design a machine that thinks better than we do? The question is moot because such a machine would only be a leverage of the billions of combined man-hours and trillions of dollars in resources that are put into it. It will be an efficiency--a leverage of what we already do. It will be an expression....of us. And Cousin Og would be proud.

Be well,




I think you've just made an arguement for personal robotic defense systems. :)

More seriously though, I don't see user-operated cars being banned in the US. You might see vehicles you can switch between manual control and computer control. And you'd probably see special lanes for computer-operated vehicles (or vice versa).

But in the US, at least, a lot of people take pleasure out of driving. Not the commute to work, but going out on the weekends for a long drive, into the country. People also tend to treat speed limits as suggestions here rather than laws. The sign may say 65mph, but most people are doing 75 mph or 80mph on the freeways. It's pretty standard to drive 5 or 10 miles per hour above the limit even in residential areas. If computer controlled cars follow the law -- which they would -- people would hate it.

As a precursor, you'd have to have every car equipped with a GPS system than measured speed and reported it to the authorities. That's technically possible, but I'm not sure the US public would support making it mandatory.


Would you rather drive a Ford Focus, or have a chauffeur-driven Rolls show up whenever you call for it (and have the warm fuzzy feeling of knowing that the Rolls is better for the environment)?

I'd rather have a Ford Focus, because it would be mine. I'd know who'd been in it before, I could show it off to friends, I could control who used it.

I could probably take cabs right now for the same price as I pay in car payments, gas, and insurance, but I wouldn't...


Noel: no deal. I don't gamble. (It's near-as-dammit the one part of my religious upbringing that stuck, despite me growing up to be an atheist. I'm also highly risk-averse, as you probably figured out already.)


I think you doubters are assuming that anti-driving laws would come in at one fell swoop. It's more likely that this will be an added feature for cars as soon as it's technically possible. Then Europe will make its use mandatory, first on highways, then in some of the more dangerous cities, and then it will be mandatory EU-wide.

As Europe goes, some U.S. cities and states will follow. Fatalities will be reduced dramatically, and that will propel the rest to join them. Americans will always be permitted to own their own cars (with exceptions like NYC, Massachusetts, Vermont, and parts of California) but manual driving will be verboten.

If you don't believe it, try driving without a seat belt.

Taking Andrew's point, I can see this happening even faster if automated cars are permitted to drive faster than manual ones.


Charlie: The trick is knowing on what to gamble. For example, I won a bet at work that Blizzard's new game announcement would be Starcraft 2. Sucker bet, really. Anyway...

Jack Boyce, sure, argumentation rather than AI. We can be pretty sure that argumented humans are going to maintain a Human outlook. We're stubborn, Humans. An AI? Well, despite theories about inherent bias from Human culture we simply don't know what its motivations would be.

(And frankly Uplift before AI as well. I'd rather uplift a Dog to do my scut work for me rather than have an AI controlling my house..)


98: We don't have fundamentally different experiences than our grandparents did, just additional ones.

You're right, our grandkids will never really _stop_ digging for tubers while keeping an eye out for predators, they'll just do other things too. ;-)


"Total history a term I'd like to coin, by analogy to total war is something we haven't experienced yet."

Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel beat you to it by sixty years. Check out 'the Annales school'. The problem is that no matter how many organised Gallic geniuses you throw at the problem, total history is stubbornly hard to write.

What you're talking about instead is a total _archive_. Looking things up in historical archives is now a lot easier than it was. We're just beginning the climb up the lower reaches of the s-curve. When I first heard of a man named Stross, about 12 years ago, we were in the Puffing Billy stage - several people saw the potential and were trying to make it work, but the things were still clunking monstrosities. I think that young Robert S has just put a water tube boiler into the Rocket.

But I digress. Getting raw data out of the archive is the easy bit. Making sense of what you find there is the hard part.


Consider the number of bullet holes in the average rural traffic sign here, particularly if it's trying to tell the drivers to do anything they don't want to do.

So as currently constituted CCTV cameras have a limited level of viability in the US. In many places the first and last thing they'd record would be the muzzle of a shotgun... 8-).


As to history, mostly it isn't about facts, but about their interpretation -- what they _mean_.

Having a lot of good data would certainly help, but most of it would be irrelevant. Anyone working in the history of the past century or so already has more data than they need (except for classified stuff, of course).

For fine-grain social-cultural history, knowing what people _do_ is often less important than knowing their motivations and perceptions, which a life-cam couldn't record. You want to know _why_ they're doing something.

For example, people in the England of Elizabeth the Second who marry do so at about the same age as those in the England of Elizabeth the First.

But their _motivations_ are quite different. It's a different social phenomenon even though it's the same act (marriage) done at the same period (mid-to-late 20's).


And I still think that biological technology is going to be the big thing in the next 100 years; info-tech is heading for that flattening-out part of the graph fairly soon.

As Charlie said, we're now in the position of people in 1940; obsessed with increasing speeds in an area where the rate of increase will soon begin to slow down inexorably.

Mind you, as Charlie also points out, the biggest impact of a technology comes when it's generalized, not when it's invented. Passenger jets were a 1940's-50's invention, but their main impact came a generation later. We'll still be working through the consequences of cheap computing power and wide bandwidth in 2050, though by then nobody will be waiting breathlessly for the new chip or phone.

But by then the really important stuff will be genetic.


The phenomenon Charlie pointed out with respect to maximum travel speeds is in fact a general one with respect to technological progress in general.

Eg., take one that's a hobby of mine -- small arms.

You get a slow start on gunpowder weapons, with little spikes of innovation and very slow progress up until the 19th century.

The weapons used at Waterloo in 1815 were pretty much the same as those used in the War of the Spanish Succession a hundred years earlier -- flintlock smoothbores firing round lead balls with a charge of black powder poured down the muzzle. The were only marginally superior to the matchlock arquebuses used by both sides in the Armada campaign of 1588.

Then, in the 1830's, you start to get a trickle of inventions -- percussion ignition, general-issue rifles, then workable breechloaders, then the metallic cartridge, then the small-calibre jacketed bullet, then nitro powder, then magazine feeds and belts, then fully-automatic weapons.

This culminates in a flood of developments in the 1890's, when rates-of-fire, range and muzzle velocity climbed into the modern range.

Then a drastic slowing down of innovation.

The infantry weapons of 1914-1918 were all new, and radically different from what the soldiers' grandfathers, or even their fathers, had used. Hell, their grandfathers had been using flintlocks!

The British rifle used in World War One had been introduced in 1904, the heavy machine gun in 1906, the light machine-gun in 1914. They were refinements of inventions dating to the 1880's and 1890's.

The oldest issue-arm for front line troops among the Great Powers in 1914 was the French Lebel rifle, which had been radical in 1886 and was a bit obsolete by 1914.

But by contrast, if you look at the small arms the US (or any other) army uses in 2007, it's a very different story.

The M-16 assault rifle dates from the late 50's and early 60's, the .50 Browning heavy machine gun dates from 1918(!) and has never been bettered, the M240 general-purpose machine gun is a 1957 design (from FN)whose action is based on that of the BAR of 1918 and the MG42 of 1942, the minimi light machine gun is a 1980's design (also from FN) that's different only in its calibre.

They're all gas or recoil-operated weapons shooting small-calibre jacketed bullets in centerfire brass cartridges filled with nitro powder, held in box magazines or belts, developing velocities in the 2500-3500 fps envelope...

... in other words, minor variations on the standards of the 1890's. Not one single thing about them (except the plastic stocks) would puzzle an engineer at Springfield or Enfield or Skoda or Mauser in 1907, or even 1890, if you could zap one back in time.

They'd admire the fine standard of the machining, and might take a week or two to figure out how the stampings and spot-welding were done, but they could duplicate any of it, albeit they'd use slightly different methods. The result would be a little heavier and a little less reliable, but only marginally.

Again by contrast, if you sent a Lee-Enfield or a Maxim gun from 1900 back to a gunsmith in 1800, he couldn't begin to duplicate it -- and some parts of it (the alloy steels, the nitro powder, etc.) would be impossible for him to even _understand_, much less copy. He wouldn't have the chemical theory or the methods of materials analysis to even make a start.

The last real innovation in small arms was the assault rifle in the 1940's. Since then, there's been a year-by-year fiddling at the margins, but a SG44 would still be a quite effective infantry weapon 63 years later.


And I still think that biological technology is going to be the big thing in the next 100 years; info-tech is heading for that flattening-out part of the graph fairly soon.

There's the possibility that the two could merge at somepoint. Biology at it's basic level is very close to what we would imagine nanoteck computing to be. A human starts from a single cell that contains all the instructions and equipment for producing an adult, giving time and resource inputs. Creating something like that from scratch would be incredibly difficult, but modifying biology for computing is a possible shortcut...

Molecular computing based on modified viruses might be the next big thing in 2050.


The last real innovation in small arms was the assault rifle in the 1940's. Since then, there's been a year-by-year fiddling at the margins, but a SG44 would still be a quite effective infantry weapon 63 years later.

Even that was more of a tactical adoption of technology that had been around for awhile. The first weapon that could really be called an assault rifle was designed in 1890 - the Cei-Rigotti rifle.

And the Fedorov Avtomat was in use in combat in the Russian Civil War, which is possibly the first use of a massed produced assault rifle in combat, in 1919.

So really, your point is even more accurate -- developments in small arms since 1890 have been a series of slight improvements.


Consider the number of bullet holes in the average rural traffic sign here, particularly if it's trying to tell the drivers to do anything they don't want to do.

The danger here in the US comes from private companies rather than the government. What if insurance companies start by giving discounts to good drivers who install GPS monitoring systems? A lot of people would take a discount in exchange for that, I think. Or parents who want to monitor their children's driving habits.

From there, how long until insurance companies start charging *more* to drivers who don't use the technology? Until they become standard on all new cars, and manufacturer warranties are voided if they're removed?


Steve @170: a mate of mine has a cafe, just down the road from here. He's installing CCTV at present, to deal with a problem he's got. Eight cameras cost him £30, wholesale. They're teensy boxes, about one inch square and half an inch thick, with a lens protruding from one face for another half inch. The largest component of each camera is the plug for the antiquated coaxial cable. They can be mounted in black plastic domes about two inches in diameter, or hidden behind pinholes, because the lens is only a couple of millimetres across. They are infrared sensitive (we tested 'em in darkness) and they do some funky colour-remapping so that they transmit black and very dark colours as pale gray -- makes it much easier to see into shadows, make out features on non-white faces, and so on. Image quality is about the same as a camcorder from ten years ago.

These gadgets can be hooked up to a PCI card that fits in a bog-standard PC, costing another £50, and which can record eight video streams in parallel to hard disk. Or transmit them over the internet, if you've got broadband with a fast enough uplink.

Put it all together: for the price of a new pair of trainers you can buy an eight channel, concealable, infra-red sensitive, internet-upload capable, surveillance system.

If I was one of your local sign-shooting rednecks, I'd be careful about shooting up cameras. After all, it's not the one you see that they'll use to charge you with criminal damage.

As for biological systems ... there's an interesting resemblance between the direction things are going in, and some of the projections Eric Drexler was making for nanotechnology in the 1980s. In the worst case for nanotech that I can envisage -- if the exotic machine-phase replicators turn out to be an intractable problem -- we'll still end up with goop-phase nanotech: artificial organisms engineered from scratch to do things that natural cells simply can't do. In terms of aviation history, goop-phase nanotechnology is probably around 1910 right now.


The problem with biotech, though, is that so much of it is going to go into better creams for chapped arses. And try as you might, there isn't much angular momentum in that.

Welcome to the exasperation zeitgeist!


Charlie, well, microtech is in the goop-phase. It's going to be several years before we can manufacture nanotech goop in any sort of quantity...


Charlie @177:

That's a good point about security cameras. When I was in retail, I was told there are two purposes for cameras. One is to deter crime, and the other is to catch criminals after the fact. For the first, you want large, visible cameras so people know they're being watched. They don't even have to be real -- the ones in our store were fake. But if people think they're being watched, they'll act different. If you want to recod crimes for later prosecution, then a small camera no one can see is best. In fact, you could use both -- plastic camera in obvious places, with penny-sized ones where people won't notice.

And we do have cameras in the US, they just tend to be on private property or in places like schools. If you put them on the streets there'd be backlash, but no one thinks twice about them being in stores or at ATMs.

Regarding biotech systems -- it occurs to me that they might have some obstacles that nanotech or IT don't have. There's a natural opposition on moral and evironmental grounds -- namely playing god with living organizisms. Never mind that a virus is little different than a machine, people will still object where they wouldn't to other technologies aimed at doing the same thing.


Charlie@177: Can you translate that "goop-phase" comment for us mundanes, please?

Huh. While I'm on the subject of incomprehension, at some point I've also got to ask you to explain just what exactly happened in Missile Gap. Reading it, I felt like a exhausted drip coming to a party after three days awake at the job, who hears a joke, and understands that he's expected to laugh, but just too tired to figure out why it's funny.

Conversely, I loved Accelerando, because I read it as a rather deliciously mean-spirited satire. I have since discovered that you did not intend it as a satire, let alone a deliciously mean-spirited one. That, of course, no way lessened my enjoyment of the book, but it made me wonder about differing cultural assumptions.

There's an interesting sociological commentary in there, somewhere.

Anyway, I'd still like a translation of the goop-phase aviation-in-1910 worst-case comment. It's almost entirely cryptic to me, unless you're saying that we're all going to die horribly, which judging from your tone doesn't seem to be what you're trying to convey.



I think "we all die horribly' is the answer to what happened in Missile gap.


Noel: "goop phase" = dependent on a lipid/water interface. And I reckon we're at about the same stage vis-a-vis building nanosystems out of biological components that the aerospace biz was at in 1910.

"Missile Gap" was in some part an attempt to refute Nick Bostrom's simulation argument by pointing out that even if it turns out we are living in an ancestor simulation, we might just be there as background colour; animals on a farm deluding themselves that it's all for their own benefit, when really it's about the farmer.

As for Accelerando, are you sure I wasn't taking the piss as I went along? (I find it difficult to take any ideology completely seriously -- especially ones I sympathize with.)


"So as currently constituted CCTV cameras have a limited level of viability in the US. In many places the first and last thing they'd record would be the muzzle of a shotgun... 8-)."

Posted by: S.M. Stirling

For such a hunted species, they sure do proliferate like rabbits.

Just in case you don't remember recent US history, it took a Supreme Court decision to preserve the Magna Carta recently, let such new-fangled, futuristic things such as the Constitution. A lot of Americans would happily give away their freedom, assuming that their guns would protect them from StasiUSA.


"If I was one of your local sign-shooting rednecks, I'd be careful about shooting up cameras. After all, it's not the one you see that they'll use to charge you with criminal damage."

-- yeah, but hereabouts the jury would give him a medal, not a guilty verdict, and the DA knows it...


I liked "Missle Gap" a lot but it was, in my opinion, a bit of a waste of a wonderful setting.

The worst thing about the post-Renaissance, Age of Exploration/Expansion period was that it necessarily had to end sometime.

There's a limit to the number of times you can find the sources of the Nile or walk over that last mountain pass and see the Valley of Mexico spread out below.

With Big Dumb Objects like ringworlds and Dyson spheres and so forth you can have one that goes on _forever_.



Hmm. What would Isaac Newton think of an Alderson disk?


I liked "Missle Gap" a lot but it was, in my opinion, a bit of a waste of a wonderful setting.

Well the nice thing is that it will happen over and over and over... :)


The BBC recently said that there's a CCTV camera for every fourteen people in Britain. I'm tempted to get thirteen people together and go and find ours.


"A lot of Americans would happily give away their freedom, assuming that their guns would protect them from StasiUSA."

-- only because the shooters on the grassy knoll have put miniature holes in their tinfoil beanies... 8-).


Charlie? For what it's worth, I have an uncle (Robert Maurer) who lives in Santa Fe, and many good friends in El Paso. (Which is basically in New Mexico, culturally.) It's a very civilized place, by American standards, in which the casual destruction of private property is not smiled upon.

I strongly doubt that a jury in Santa Fe would acquit somebody who fired a weapon at a CCTV camera; after all, CCTV systems at gas stations in the city of Santa Fe have been publicly credited with helping an overstretched police department get a handle on burglary after a series of (justified) corruption investigations reduced staffing, and a lack of properly positioned CCTV cameras was blamed as a factor allowing the very serious beating of a Republican operative in a bank parking lot in Bernalillo. (It was petty crime, not political retribution, I'd like to add.) In fact, the city has an ordinance requiring that spray paint be stored under electronic surveillance at all times.

They're very serious about combatting graffiti in New Mexico, they are.

And there is this story:http://abcnews.go.com/TheLaw/story?id=3175439&page=1.

Just sayin', you know, in case you ever decided to visit. Either rest assured that little brother is keeping you safe, or remain afraid that your neighbors are watching. Just don't think that New Mexicans are particularly hostile to private surveillance, and please don't fear that a Santa Fe jury will let hooligans shoot up your belongings.

As opposed to traffic signs, of course. That's fair game, and the risk of getting arrested just adds to the fun.


As opposed to traffic signs, of course. That's fair game, and the risk of getting arrested just adds to the fun.

Plus, how else are you going to practice hunting from a moving vehicle? :)


In Michigan (how did you like our state C.S.?) the attorney general said traffic cameras did not stand up to our state's evidentuary standards. Apparently you can't trust the images (whatever). So, at least for now, road intersection cams are not in our future.



Yes, so lower-resoloution CCTV cameras can't either. Brilliant :/


A lengthy, well-written, well-reasoned argument deserves a lengthy, well-written, well-reasoned rebuttal.

This was the best I could at short notice...


Still, one out of three ain't bad ;0)


"I strongly doubt that a jury in Santa Fe would acquit somebody who fired a weapon at a CCTV camera;"

-- sorry, meant the Southwest in general as "here". You're quite right about Santa Fe in particular.


Hi, Steve. You probably mean the rural Southwest, because the region is actually highly urbanized and relatively intolerant of anarchy. Southwestern cities, while high crime, are far more orderly than Northeastern ones on most other levels. I have trouble imagining juries in greater Albuquerque, El Paso, Tucson, Phoenix, Denver, Colorado Springs, Las Vegas, or Salt Lake City being much more supportive of vandalism than juries in Santa Fe.

Still, granted that we're talking about the rural Southwest (which is nearly depopulated these days), people there aren't really more supportive of the destruction of private property. I'm having some trouble here wrapping my head around the idea that a jury will be more sympathetic to Joseph Schmo, who fired a shotgun at a gas station camera for no reason other than that he didn't like people looking at him in a public place, than Franklin Fulano, the hard-working propietor of said gas station.

I was mugged at a gas station in Tuba City, Arizona, in the summer of 1989. No cameras, unfortunately.


This appeared in today's Grauniad: Miniature hat-cams to record wardens issuing tickets. And yesterday, while waiting for a bus, I noticed a Blue Meanie issuing a parking ticket. He took photos of the vehicle and the sign which indicated the parking times - with a digital camera, so the pics will be time-stamped.


Steve@196: We may be talking past each other; it's easy to miss that we were discussing private cameras on private property.

I don't believe that more than a minuscule number of Southwesterners believe that they have a God-given right to destroy private property with a firearm; certainly not enough to form a jury. I am more agnostic as to whether a rural jury would forgive a violent armed assault on state-owned property.

In New Mexico in particular, the Hispanos that I know tend to be very small-c conservative in that (and other) respects.


If lifelogs both apply and are available universally, what does that mean for politicians and the state apparatus? At present, both rely on the public not really knowing very much about what they are up to, and particularly their full intentions. I know this is a bit cynical, but...

I cannot imagine the US President's lifelog being open to the world, so we can see everything said by and to him; or perhaps this is one of the revolutionary changes that are coming: no more state secrets or covert programmes.


"I cannot imagine the US President's lifelog being open to the world, so we can see everything said by and to him"

Let's not forget the Nixon tapes. He fought that to the Supreme Court and lost.


Posted by: Tony:
"If lifelogs both apply and are available universally, what does that mean for politicians and the state apparatus? At present, both rely on the public not really knowing very much about what they are up to, and particularly their full intentions. I know this is a bit cynical, but...

I cannot imagine the US President's lifelog being open to the world, so we can see everything said by and to him; or perhaps this is one of the revolutionary changes that are coming: no more state secrets or covert programmes."

Tony, I first encountered the term 'Carte Blanche' in 'The Three Musketeers'. It said (from memory) 'The bearer of this card has done what has been done for the good of the state'. Signed by Richelieu, the guy who ran the French government, it was a powerful piece of paper.

IMHO the US and UK governments have invented what I call the 'Carte Noir'. If put into a specifica document, it would read 'All information about the actions of the bearer of this card are classified, and may only be possessed by the bearer and their superiors'. It'd be signed by 'You don't have a right to know'.

The purpose of the carte noir is that, in an evidence-based system, control of the evidence is tremendously powerful. One doesn't need to have the law favor one directly, if one can act (almost) as one pleases, and suppress any useable evidence).


Speaking of lifelogs, here's a guy who takes mobile pictures and posts them on the web regularly (every hour or so) in an attempt to persuade the US government that he is not a terrorist. It's not quite real time and it's not video, but I suppose that would be the next logical step.

Poor guy.


"people there aren't really more supportive of the destruction of private property."

-- we were talking about public, government-owned CCTV's, weren't we?

Personally I consider a degree of disorder a small price to pay for liberty.

I like the contumaciousness that's a strong strain in the American tradition, the 'armed self-help' and general bloody-mindedness.


Hi all. I've been lurking here since the discussion began, and finally decided to jump in.

First of all, if you don't know already, it turns out there's an art professor at Rutgers who's already basically lifelogging (though his site isn't organized to be easily browsable). Everywhere he goes, he takes a picture and uploads it, and his position is mapped in more or less real-time. He started doing it after he was mistakenly kept from boarding a flight, to show he had nothing to hide. He says, when it comes to his personal information, he's flooding the market. Wired News story here; his site is here.

Second, re privacy: I agree that our abstract notion of "privacy" came out of technical conditions that won't apply in the future. But one thing that bugs me is this: what happens to those who have a legitimate need to hide what they're doing, like, say, political dissidents?

If anyone is able to find out what you're doing, then those inclined to exploit that knowledge--or punish you if they don't like it--will do so. And I really don't see any way to keep that from happening while the government has a monopoly on the use of force. (No, I am not a gun nut--I think the NRA is sad and misguided--but I can certainly see them using this argument.)

Anyway, just a couple of things to inject into the conversation.


"Let's not forget the Nixon tapes. He fought that to the Supreme Court and lost."

-- which ensured that future presidents would either not keep tapes, or would destroy them all and deny everything at the first sign of trouble.

If Nixon had simply wiped the tapes and then brazened it out, he probably would have survived.


"...which ensured that future presidents would either not keep tapes, or would destroy them all and deny everything at the first sign of trouble."

What would future presidents have done if Nixon had not kept tapes, or wiped them and denied everything?


Several sites are reporting on a man who is documenting his life online...

here's the Wired article http://www.wired.com/techbiz/people/magazine/15-06/ps_transparency


You've probably come across this already, but Google is making plans (The Independent, 24th May, front page)

I agree with sentiments that it may be impossible to protect our privacy for much longer. And I'm scared...


Steve@204: No, we weren't.

Of course, even if we were, I suspect that you're wrong about New Mexico juries. We can test this, of course. There are many cases brought every year regarding the destruction of public property, and the results will not be hard to examine and collate. Shall we wager, oh, $1,000 that the majority of such cases result in conviction?

Conversely, we can even look for cases throughout the entire Southwest of the destruction of public cameras. That, however, will be biased towards cities, where you've conceded the argument, so I can understand if you don't want to take the bet.

The trait you've described obviously exists in America, and it's stronger in the Southwest, but it's not prevalent. The U.S. has an extremely strong state --- and all you need to do, Steve, is travel a couple of hundred miles south to see what a society with a real tradition of individualistic armed obstinacy looks like --- because Americans deep down believe it to be legitimate.


I suspect that you're wrong about New Mexico juries.

Context is everything in this case. I think if a government here was installing cctv cameras all around town or a city, juries would be much more sympathetic to the destruction of those cameras. If some guy just goes around busting up mailboxes or defacing park benches, he would get no sympathy.

In the cases where they've installed traffic cameras at stop lights they've been extremely unpopular. So much so that they usually don't stand up in court anymore. People just say "that wasn't me, the camera got the wrong car" and people believe them.


Noel Maurer, although that does not of course mean they're right. Things like the Velvet, Rose and Orange non-violent revolutions in Europe are just examples of the way its been repeatedly proven that simply people in the streets can bring down any government less willing to purge their own people than the Chinese.

And when arms are raised and battle joined, we get the Balklans.

In this day and age, the camera is a more dangerous weapon against a government than a gun. Yes, they look at us. But we can also look back. And should demand the right to do so.

(And yes, in this at least I entirely agree with Brin)


Andrew: could be, but I doubt it. Red-light and trafficams are proliferating around the U.S., and while there are complaints, there aren't enough to stop the growth. In addition, I don't know of any sort of systematic trend towards their violent destruction, and I certainly don't know of any trend of juries acquiting the destroyers of public property. Finally, while there are of course cases in which tickets from cameras are successfully contested, you seem to be claiming a universal trend which simply doesn't exist.

For example, you wrote, "People just say 'that wasn't me, the camera got the wrong car' and people believe them." Well, yes, in some cases they do say that and they are believed. In other cases, not so much. Trafficams, in general, continue to generate sufficient revenues to pay for themselves, which seems prima facie evidence that any judicial revolt against such systems is not generalized.

I don't want to push my argument too far. I can easily imagine a reaction against traffic cameras in certain localities. Anchorage, Peoria, Cupertino, Oakland, and Pasadena have all discontinued trafficam programs in the face of popular discontent, and Portland makes it ridiculously easy to argue out of a citation. (Other cities, among them Scottsdale, San Francisco, Albuquerque, and Washington, D.C., do not. I would prefer not to mention why I know this to be true.)

In other words, I am not claiming that Americans take lightly or easily to automated surveillance of their driving habits. Nor am I predicting that such systems will survive the test of time in the United States. (Although, to be honest, that is the way I'd bet.) I am saying that Steve is (probably unintentionally) passing off a stereotyped view of rural Southwestern behavior as representative of the region, when it is not. I am also saying that any revolt against such cameras, even in the Southwest, will take the form of petition drives, elections, and lawsuits, not jury nullifaction aimed at letting violent vandals get away with the brazen destruction of public property.

Of course, we were originally talking about private cameras, where Steve and I seem to be in agreement.


"... Pasadena have all discontinued trafficam programs in the face of popular discontent..."

Depriving me of the fun of writing the briefs and subpoenas when my wife was trafficam ticketed. The system used in Pasadena, California, if I recall, had a 0.1 second delay built in by hardware, which is less than the reaction time of someone entering the intersection on yellow and having it go red during a decision window. I was all ready to demand blueprints, and source code to challenge with Software Engineering bafflegab.

I have beaten several non-automated tickets, once by cross-examining the cop as to when the sun had set. He didn't know. The violation was defined in terms of when it was an hour before sunset, and, since the cop didn't know that time, the State could not meet its burden of proof that the law in question was applicable to this fact pattern. I made him look oike a fool with withering questions learned from years of watching courtroom scenes in movies and on TV. Flustered, he protested that he didn't know "astrology." The judge smiled. When the case was dismissed, the courtroom applauded.

I once beat a Federal rap: parking ticket in a National Forest, because the cop had accidently written the wrong date on the ticket.

"That's just a technicality," said the Prosecutor to the Judge.

"Oh, really?" I said. "And I suppose it's a technicality to charge someone with murder when the purported victim is still alive? Facts are facts; the state has a burden of proof, impossible with these facts..."

The prosecitor dropped the case right then and there. The bail was reunded. Minus the cost of the breakfast in Little Tokyo I bought myself and my wife before the hearing, we were $1.00 ahead for the day. But we were happy...


If you stretch the small arms technological progress analogy one more step, then shortly after reaching it's peak, other developments (tanks, planes) eclipsed them in warmaking capability. Not that small arms stopped improving, or weren't (aren't) still effective, but the rapid development of mobile fighting platforms hid these developments. Again, analogous(ish) with transport/information.

For some reason the combination of Worst-Case scenario and 1910 aviation in the same comment put me in mind of this book (the 1908 version of dangerous emerging technology as opposed to AI/nanotech today)


Thank you for posting this thought-provoking speech.

When someone mentioned "legacy default" problems, I had a scary thought... the ultimate "legacy system" is DNA: we all carry it. It's the oldest data storage system.

What if artificial data processing power and storage capacity becomes so great, it can replace the necessity of DNA to sustain life?

OK, why would anyone want cells without DNA? (I don't mean genes that can be reprogrammed on the fly, but no genes at all.)

For ideological reasons: A desire to "erase history" and escape the "restraints" of having genes that dictate one's behavior and limitations. To truly know that your will is "free," and not just pretending to be free.

Could there be an "Abolish DNA" Movement in the future? (But see what happened previously in history, with movements that tried to erase history and "start over with a blank slate"...)


WRT the slowdown-in-acceleration-of-transport:
( and the transformation of firearms: )

I would argue that similarly to how firearms (which needs to be redefined as the means of killing armies) transformed from hand-held guns to warplanes and transonic missiles:

"Transport" needs to be redefined as the means of not just moving a person but of moving their capacity to interact ... and as such, has continuously accelerated without any plateau in sight:

Before the 1800s, a person who needed to do something at a distance either went there himself or sent a sealed paper message at horse-speed.
(Very few (tiny%) people had any personal contact outside walking distance. Average contacts*miles-per-person-per-year is incredibly small.)

In the 1800s, simultaneously with the revolution in transport came the advent of the telegraph, giving low-bandwidth, low-coverage, long-distance interaction, reducing the need for a human to courier a message. However, interaction still required the person to physically travel.
(Few people had regular contact outside walking distance, but occasional train/boat travel was expensively available in the industrialized world. Average contacts*miles-per-person-per-year in the industrialized world is measurable and somewhat low.)

In the pre-internet 1900s, radio and telephone services allowed higher bandwidth and coverage, so even with faster travel, travel became increasingly unnecessary. Acquiring bulk information (A/V recordings or books), physical objects or experiences still required human travel. Faxes and phones obsoleted many travel-related needs. The demand for physical transit peaked with the supply of the Concord, which was then obsoleted by good international phone service, international faxes and the advent of the internet. Money is sent electronically rather than by courier, but bills are still mailed.
The industrialized world transforms from foot travel to international-calling.
(Average contacts*miles-per-person-per-year in the industrialized world goes from measurable to huge, Americans buying things from China becomes daily, people with overseas business or family rack up huge C*M/P*Y levels)

With the internet, travel to get data-type media, crude in-person interactions, or crude experiences is relatively obsolete. People need not travel to experience places or events by calling up video recordings.
Stage-theater -> movie-theaters -> Blockbuster -> Netflix -> TiVo-video-on-demand and YouTube.
Video conferencing is crudely replacing international jet travel for many purposes.
People travel now for vacations/special-experiences or high-level meetings or pushy salesmanship or specialized medical treatment.
Couriers haul objects but document hauling has fallen off precipitously. E-bills, automated payments and credit cards mean many people don't handle money at all.
Even military human-travel is minimized by remote-attack smart-bombs, needing humans only for occupation.
Some people now even work from home (telecommuting).
(Average contacts*miles-per-person-per-DAY in the industrialized world becomes immeasurable: cable-TV email, cellphones, remote-news-reading, blogging, filesharing, and spam all push our C*M/P*Day beyond simple calculation. Look at how many brief worldwide contacts you get just by reading the comments on this blog.)

In a VERY few years, total-immersion collaborative 3D VR will largely replace business travel, telemedicine will mostly eliminate long-distance medical travel, most of the world's wonders will be 3D-VR recorded for remote enjoyment from home (more people will experience more places/events, even though the actual level of vacation-travel will be negligibly-less-than-the-otherwise-expected-level), objects will be printed by (armature-type) home replicators (now called rapid-prototyping machines, see fabathome.org (advanced units have already printed working cellphones, mouse kidneys and 2-story concrete houses)) from freely downloaded specifications.
People will still travel for personal reasons (family, vacations, etc), to buy/courier non-replicatable things (food, clothing, advanced electronics, artwork, unusual materials, and raw materials for replicators).
Most worldwide manufacturing of replicatable items will be uneconomic.
Most couriering will be done by robots, including USPS, Fedex and UPS.
Both cost of living and employment will approach zero. (McDonalds, Walmart, Toyota, Fedex will have nearly no human employees)
(Average contacts*miles-per-person-per-minute becomes immeasurable as personal-software-agents provided by google or its successor constantly scour the world for each person looking for things, people or events that might interest them and VR connects stadium-fulls of worldwide people in live pseudo-video-streams)

With the advent of non-armature-type home replicators (material-assembly without moving a print-head, moving and placing mass via lasers and energy fields), complex/high-energy materials assembly will be possible and within a few Moore's-Law generations, food (and shortly thereafter tasty/good food). Replicators will be powered by mass-energy-mass_converters and get raw materials from converting rock or air.
Cost of living will be zero, as will traditional employment (think of Star Trek). Nobody will need to go anywhere as anything you can experience or need can be downloaded or replicated. Conversely, people will have unlimited time, robots and energy(joules) to suborbitally fly anywhere at ridiculous speeds.
(Average contacts*miles-per-person-per-second will be immeasurable by 2007 standards and this time period is beyond the singularity: what we can project forward will have less bearing on daily life than new technologies and breakthroughs, especially if these have anything to do with neural interconnections.)

Basically my argument here is that teleconnectivity has obsoleted the need to physically displace people to accomplish things or interact, and as such should be factored in.

If there were no global communication links, transport might have progressed to the suborbital ultra-speed personal shuttlecraft or message-pods or other such things imagined by decades-ago pre-telecomm sci-fi.

But the exponential increase in low-cost high-bandwidth communication with high-capacity-computation supplied a different means of satisfying the demand for interacting across the continent or across the globe.

Information-flow has obsoleted people-flow.

The phone network and the internet lowered urgent need-demand for the research and development of the personal flying car. VR and telecommuting may kill it for mass-deployment in non-luxury use until energy becomes essentially free. (Mass-Energy converter tech will never be publicly available while there are jihadis or foreign militaries willing to blow up our cities.)

So that's what happened to your flying car.


"The future is the present projected,? said Aldous Huxley. “Our notions of the future have something of that significance which Freud attributes to our dreams. And not our notions of the future only: our notions of the past as well. For if prophecy is an expression of our contemporary fears and wishes, so too, to a very great extent, is history.?

Huxley’s most famous novel, Brave New World, was published in 1932, and this is the occasion of this seventy-fifth anniversary.

Aldous was the novelist half of Aldous and Juilus, who collectively knew Science and could fictionalize it, just as Henry James was the novelist half of Henry and William (not to mention Alice).

Charles Stross is both brothers. He is the Boris and Arkady Strugatski of the computational cosmos.


Ain't this beautiful?

Give a speech like that and the audience is wowed, but they go home remembering bits and pieces to mull over. Blog it and a much larger audience can really get into it, enlarge the discussion, and solve the world's problems.

- Or is it just mental masturbation? What can technology do for us when a significant portion of the population is mentally disturbed?

We spend billions to help the starving and the diseased, and then refuse to educate them or equip them for family planning. We spend billions to imprison criminals but little to correct the environment that created them. We spend billions and kill people and manipulate small countries to support our entrenched oil lobbies. We permit food suppliers to poison our populace with junk food & drink and then whine about endemic obesity and heart disease. Every congressperson (but one) in the US government praises god and would never hint at disbelief in a world where fundamentalist fervor remains the greatest threat to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

And, because of these things, there are a substantial number of insane people, mentally defective from birth or environmental causes who walk among us and threaten our existence.

Those who are so insane can be excused, but what of the society that allowed it to happen? Are we not all insane for looking the other way? Are we not insane for fantasizing about our techno future when we can't even clean up this legacy mess? Should we all go to the ball game and pretend none of this is happening?

... omphaloskepsis often ...


It's interesting what you've said, and I can see how a lot of the thngs you're talking about could become real, but I doubt that these are the things that are going to really suprise us about the future. What you've done is to take some ideas that are pretty much mainstream in our scientific culture and extrapolate them into the future. I think you've already accepted this point yourself and just decided to write it anyway knowing that it's only an extrapolation, but I think it's worth reiterating.

For what it's worth, my guess is that some of the things which will really suprise us about future science / technology / knowledge aren't going to come from developments of currently mainstream tech but from out on the fringes - things which we don't even recognise as science at the moment. E.g. the question of the nature of consciousness is still basically unanswered within mainstream science, and I reckon at least some of our future understanding of that is going to come from areas which are currently dismissed - e.g. parapsychology, or even some elements of religious belief. I'm not talking about some kind of primitivist thing where we regress to older beliefs and reject science, more a 'return of the repressed' where things that have historically been placed beyond the scientific pale find their way back into the mainstream through other routes. I.e. we're not all going to become renaissance magicians, or medieval christians, but maybe some of the ways of thinking which they would have found congenial but have now been rejected as nonscientific will end up being combined with elements of what we now regard as scientific to produce a new form of knowledge and technology.


Re #219, Thomas, have you read Greg Bear's --Queen of Angles?-- The issue of mental health is addressed in a very SF way. The issue continues to be a big part of the plot for the follow up book, --Slant.-- The social issues of mental health are already at crisis stage in America. And things are only going to get worse (IMHO).



"If I was malicious, I'd suggest that the move to autonomous vehicles will kill the personal automobile market;"

Seems to me it might, but not for the reasons you give.

Taxis will become much cheaper when they don't need drivers. There's no real problem with the passenger not being responsible for their maintenance, since you can't drive them recklessly. And you won't need one per person, just a large enough pool....so, you get the same thing (door-to-door transport on demand), with less expense, and less headache.

'Course, this all presupposes software that's less buggy than the human mind.


I coined the term "Information Archaeologist" to refer to the historians in the similar total history concept. It is obvious to the INFJ. The historians will look back and connect the dots and find me too.


I haven't been this worried since i read Nevil Shute's "On the Beach" when i was 10.
Very insightful.