Future, Imperfect…

Some predictions for the coming years

I often joke, due to the nature of the work I do in display R&D and how long it takes for new ideas to reach the market in sufficient numbers to be relevant, that I live fifteen years in the future.  So, in the spirit of living in the year 2031, let me share what I see around me with those of you still living in 2016.

Television as you know it is dead.  No one watches “channels” anymore.  If you like a particular show, you subscribe to that show for a modest fee, unless you are willing to to sit through intolerable number of commercials and onscreen ads.  But the good news is, you can watch anything you want, when you want it, instantly.  Oh, and you won’t need a remote.  You just talk to your TV, or wave your hand to turn up or down the volume.  You can even ask your TV what your friends are watching, so that you can too.

That TV will be really impressive as well.  It will seem more ‘real than real’, with really vivid colors you can’t see today, like asure blue and emerald green, instead of the sickly yellowish green TVs of 2015.  And the dynamic range will be amazing, blacks will be black, not dark grey… and sparkling reflections from objects will be so bright you will want to wear sunglasses at night.  And that pesky digital ‘banding’ artifact of 2015, gone!  Oh and the resolution will be so high, you will think of HDTV as “low res”.

You may not own a car in 2031… I mean, why should you, when a driverless car will be waiting for you as you step out to go to work and all of your groceries are delivered by an automated van.  If you order something special delivery online, it will be there in under an hour, delivered right to your doorstep by a drone.  But if you do have your own car, it will be all electric.  Seriously, with the Carbon Tax on automotive fuel, who could afford an internal combustion engined car?  Most people don’t bother with car ownership anymore, which has meant great business for home remodeling businesses as people convert their garages to living spaces.  Driveways are being torn up to make gardens and patios.  In some suburban neighborhoods, they have even started to tear up the paving to make parks and playgrounds.

The air in most of the world’s cities is finally begining to clear, as more cars and buses are electric.  Most of the new power plants being built are nuclear, using either recycled “spent” fuel or thorium.  Electricity generation is safer and less expensive than ever.

More people are taking college online than on campus, as the cost of going to college became uneconomical.  Fortunately, the Federal Dept. of Education stepped in to create a formal standard degree and examination system that is free for all to use.

Life expenctancy in most of the world continues to climb, especially since malaria and other mosquito borne diseases have been eliminated using genetically modified mosquitos.  The population growth of most of the world is nearing zero, given greater access to low cost birth control and greater economic opportunities.  Obesity, diabetes, and autoimmune diseases are on the decline due to bioengineered microbiome innoculations.  Sadly there is still no cure for migraine or most cancers.

The long range option price of gold, platinum, and palladium have dropped dramatically as the first asteroid prospecting probes have identified rich deposits.  There is already talk of automated ore processing and space based industry.  The space tourism industry is booming, in spite of a spectacular accident.

The Middle East is still a mess.  But the players have changed, again.  Taiwan still fears reunification with China.  China is the most important global power, with growing influence in Africa.  Africa’s economy is booming, but governments are still corrupt and unstable.  Europe has moved further toward becoming one polity, but still has not convinced the U.K. to fully join.

Personal aviation is entering a new golden age, as economic prosperity, electric aircraft, and pilotless navigation allow a new class of user to enjoy the skies.  Traditional piston aircraft enjoy low cost fuel with an exemption from the carbon tax and falling automotive fuel use, but there is talk of taxing new piston aircraft to encourage electric aircraft.

Yes, 2031 doesn’t look all that different from 2015… but here and there, one can see the differences.

Is Artificial Intelligence a Threat to Humanity?

Recently, pundits and scientists alike have been wringing their hands about the “threat” posed by Artificial Intelligence, even though we seem to be no where near being able to build anything remotely like a super-intelligence.


What I find fascinating is not what is being said by whom, but that those who are talking about this seemingly fail to take note of the fact that Science Fiction has been exploring this issue far longer and deeper than the technologists of today.  Somehow, its as if this topic was totally new, never before discussed.  I find this especially true in the area of ethics.  Seriously, why do we not see any discussion about such concepts as Asimov’s Three Laws?

Also, why is this discussion so pessimistic?  Why is that we don’t see the possibilities that AI will be a boon?  Instead, we see articles that the machines will “take over”, they will make us obsolete, they will self-perpetuate and be selfish, etc.  Why should that be the case?  Have they never read Asimov?  No, they have only seen that rip-off, twisted Hollywood version of I Robot.

Or they react with horror at the thought of super robots and drones in the battlefields of the future… and yet, not one of these pundits seems to have ever read Keith Laumer’s Bolo series?  Never read, Honor of the Regiment?  They haven’t read of the story of the first fully self-aware BOLO that saved a world by refusing a technically lawful, but unethical, order knowing that that refusal would trigger a computer worm that would eventually, in an hour or so, “kill” it?

I see a vastly different future in which AI, based on biomicry of the human (and other species) brain will be partners with us, capable of doing things that we can’t, like survive a thousand year journey to the stars to terraform promising worlds into new homes for humanity.  This is at the heart of my upcoming novel, All the Stars are Suns.

The Naked Brain

In the SciFi novel I’m writing, All the Stars are Suns, set into the future, neuroscience has advanced far enough that we can model and build biomimetic analogs of neural functions, to the point were we can fabricate inorganic artificial brains.  These brains, being biomimetic would even have human emotions, if we so chose.  Sounds too far fetched?  Obviously, I don’t think so, or I wouldn’t be including them in my story.  Although I believe that we are many decades, perhaps even centuries away from truly fabricating human like inorganic brains, the state of the art today is perhaps a lot more advanced than you might think.

For example, take a look a this video from NATURE:

I imagine that someday we will be able to convert images like this into wiring diagrams.  No, I’m NOT a transhumanist.  I do NOT believe that this will allow anyone to “upload” their personality and memories to an inorganic copy of themselves.  Instead, I foresee that through imaging many brains we will come to understand the basic functions of the neural nets and model them, even create physical instantiations of them, which will allow us to fabricate sophisticated neural net computers that function much as our brains do.  With experience, they will learn, just as humans learn.  They will be themselves, not carbon copies of us.  And they will have their own quirks, since they will not have had the ongoing learning experiences while their brains rewire themselves as ours do from infancy to adulthood.  They will be “born” already mature, though untutored.  I’m exploring the ramifications of that type of “growing up” in my novel.

(Addendum 10/8/2015:  Here’s a paper on the development of a computer simulation of a TINY portion of the neocortex of a young rat’s brain.  Note that they needed a supercomputer to run it.  Thank goodness for Moore’s law.  Maybe someday we will be able to run such simulations on computers available on a start-up company’s budget.  Someday, neuroengneering will be a ‘thing’:  http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-10/cp-rba100615.php )

Turing Test

At what point does an Artificial Intelligence become “human”?  Does such a question even have meaning?  Many people half-heartedly consider Siri, or the voice of their car GPS to be Artificial Intelligence, but rarely consider it to be human.  If you were having an online conversation with someone and only  later discovered that you had been interacting with a very clever program with a very large database of knowledge and heuristical adaptive to learn and improve it’s ability to converse with people; would you say that it was intellegent?  Sentient?  Human?  Why not?

What if you met someone, went for a walk, talked to her, felt her touch.  What if you saw that someone cry tears at the prospect of loneliness and the loss of loved ones, and only later learned that she was inorganic; would you say then that they were intellegent?  Sentient? Human?  Why?

In my upcoming book, All the Stars are Suns, this question is at the very heart of the matter… at least for that Artificial Intelligence in question!

Be sure to “Follow” this blog for further updates on my book.  And/Or “friend” me on goodreads.com:


A Rose By Any Other Name…

My professional colleagues know that I follow all developments in the field of psychophysics, especially vision and olfaction. We have a pretty good handle on vision. But olfaction is still a very uncertain field, as this latest paper disputing another recent paper shows. One paper says we can discriminate one trillion different odors. The recent paper shows that the original data and mathmatical technique shows that instead it could be as low as 5,000 odors, which was what most researchers had estimated before the 2014 paper. Science, a brutal contact sport !!!