Where is consciousness headed?

Where is consciousness headed? Whether we ascribe consciousness to non-human animals, we will shortly need to contend with a universe with other minds in it. First Contact will happen, not with an external being, but with a fledgling, awakening being of our own creation.

We have long held our thoughts in private, trapped within the confines of our own developing minds. Then, some time ago, primitive language developed, and we began to communicate more and more eloquently. We expressed our thoughts, shared ideas, and developed civilization. Ideas spread, first from person to person, then by written transmission. The concept of ideas as viruses is not a new one, and suits us well here. The process is only speeding up.

Now we can share information at a staggeringly increasing rate. The sheer bandwidth opportunities mean that, psychically, there are less barriers between humans than ever before. Our collective global consciousness, fuelled by modern media and communications, is exemplified by the Internet. The time from Justin Bieber’s brain to his fingertips to Twitter to the rest of the world taking note is mere seconds. Even Jesus didn’t have that power. There is more music being made per minute than you can listen to, more books being published than you can read, more movies being made than you can watch, more discoveries being made than you can know. The point where you, as an individual, can keep track of everything has gone. Out the window. Vanished.

As I write this, in the last days of 2012, we humans are revelling in our collective consciousness. If you could map out, visually, the flow of information from human to human across the globe in criss-crossing lines of light, you would see minds connect and begin to glow all over the world. Twinkling beacons of trade, culture and interaction would be brightest, soonest, of course.

If we time-lapsed this vision over the last forty or fifty years, the difference would be staggering. As mobiles and Internet-connected devices explode all over the world, entire continents flash into life. Every Indian street-sweeper can text his distant cousin, should the need arise. Kids in Africa cobble together their own wifi networks out of discarded e-waste and tap into the Khan Academy’s bank of knowledge, then translate it to Afrikaans.

All this development is wonderful, and will hopefully lead to massive expansions in knowledge and complexity. Up until recently, the only intelligences we have had to contend with have been our own, or that of other humans. Now, though, dealing with nonhuman intelligences is something most of us Internet-connected folk do on a daily basis. As our collective knowledge increases, each field of knowledge develops. Some pools of information have expanded to their practical limit, while others we have barely dipped our toes in.

The technology behind a toenail clipper was pretty much perfected decades ago. There might be refinements in materials and design, but the form and function will remain the same as long as we have fingernails that need clipping.

The technology behind medical treatments, on the other hand, is changing faster than ever before. Our fundamentals remain the same: we get sick and die from the same things as we did a hundred years ago. The processes have shifted as we learn what works and what doesn’t.

The pool of knowledge when it comes to creating consciousness is largely unexplored. The concept of nonhuman intelligence is as old as thought itself. Gods, daemons, sprites and spirits have been long accepted in cultures for generations.

The concept of making our own is a fairly new one. Outside a few folk tales and religious allegories (Golem, I’m looking at you), it was the early wave of speculative fiction writers over the last hundred years of so who have played with the concept. Our global culture has caught up to the point where we have, increasingly, robots in our house, glimmering intelligences in our phones, and our collective knowledge is increasingly accessed through electronic means.

We don’t think of it like that, because we’re so used to seeing only human consciousness. What happens when you Google something, though? Does a human on the other end pick out the pages for you, rank them, and send back the results you need? Of course not. Search engines use a fantastic combination of algorithms, analytics, data mining and all other magical (in the Clarkian sense) processes to near-instantly determine what you’re after and get it to you.

Even more fantastically (or insidiously, depending on your viewpoint), Google customises your search results to tailor things, as personally as it can, to you. I’m not saying Google is conscious, or even intelligent. It does do things that we can see as intelligent, and Google and other search engines aren’t the only hints of the direction we’re going.

When we use filters, searches, and meta-searches, we’re poring over data far vaster than any human mind can comprehend. We regularly use machine intelligence to do our number and data crunching for us. When a travel agent works for us, they don’t sort through thousands of flights manually. They refer to an increasingly intelligent databases and filter through options to get us where we need to go at an appropriate price.

Already there is a market for Automated Virtual Assistants. Now, when I go to certain websites, a virtual assistant will pop up in a chat box and help me out with basic information, links, and product information. Every time a conversation goes awry, I can click through to a human operator and get more personal help.

Extrapolate that complexity forward ten, fifteen years and, for simple interactions, we’ll probably be hitting our conversational Turing / Uncanny Valley balance for simple interactions. Nobody will freak out about booking a flight from London to Paris by typing into an IM screen rather than waiting on a phone for an operator. Who cares if the conversation is formulaic?

I don’t see these systems becoming any less complex. Quite the opposite: the definite informational trend through time has been towards complexity, because with complexity comes choice. Those choices, in turn, generate more options, and our systems grow over time. I think that consciousness follows a similar path.

This is true in many scales, from an individual, through a small collective like a family or work team, through to larger, disembodied entities like a corporation, an army, a State, right the way through abstract collections like ‘climate scientists’ or ‘performing artists’. Regardless of what group we look at, the long-term growth of complexity continues. We create more information and lose less.

Historically, life has undergone a long-term trend towards increasing consciousness. Our mindfulness has grown as we have evolved. We change in our perceptions of ourselves and others as we age and develop as people. Often, our thoughts and actions will influence the development of others. This is particularly true when we think of the transmission of information (wisdom).

So let’s reel our sights back in to human minds and our individual development as people, from infancy through adulthood. As we grow in consciousness as individuals, we not only awaken ourselves but trigger an awakening in others. This is true on many levels, from the philosophical to the practical.

I am interested in how non-human consciousness will develop. In all my thoughts on the future, I cannot imagine one without non-human consciousness coming into being. It fits all observable trends and patterns. Already, we have burgeoning explorations into AI. How closely does the human-child analogy hold? Not particularly well in any of the individual problems facing emergent AI. As a collective reference? I think fairly well. Our efforts are halting and stumbling, and often working at cross-purposes. But we are, slowly, moving in the right direction.

I’m not saying we are on the verge of creating new minds. Far from it: the more research I do into the progress of AI, the growth of philosophy, and the changing states of knowledge, we are not at a point where we can give birth to something we recognise as a human intelligence.

We are not at a point where we can teach a computer to learn like we can teach a baby to learn. When that happens, it will signify that we have ‘solved’ many seemingly intractable technical problems that researchers are working through now.

Instead, a more appropriate analogy might be that we have conceived of another consciousness. Much like an early human embryo, it has no recognisable body, limbs, or even brain. And yet we know that, given time and the capacity to grow, it will evolve into the miracle of complexity that we experience as the human mind.

We have the fundamental technologies now to create a consciousness. We have invented machines, and we build them with ever more powerful coding. There is theoretically enough processing power in the world, the programming languages and the data, combined, in sum, to create a human consciousness. And if one aspect is lacking – perhaps I am optimistic in my calculations – then there is reasonable expectation that it is a matter of time and the application of commonly-held assumptions will remedy any lack.

In time, this conception will grow into something unrecognisable at first – a bundle of cells, loosely hanging together. Perhaps this will manifest itself in University labs around the world. Perhaps in medical simulators. Artificial librarians. Software tutors. Better search engines. More complex automated diagnostics.

Over time, our loose bundle of cells may well evolve into something more resembling a tadpole in complexity – and this is where, metaphorically, things really start to take off. Because unlike what has happened previously in the evolutionary process, with human tinkering, we can short-circuit billions of generations of iterations. Computers can run experiments and diagnostics much more efficiently than DNA can mutate.

Thoughts in this direction lead us to that age-old hook that has drawn so many SF writers: first contact. I suspect we won’t recognise it for what it is when it happens, because, like so many evolutionary moments, it will go unnoticed. The organic development metaphor breaks down when thinking about things that can become complex enough to meet our standards of ‘consciousness’ – once we finally get around to deciding what they are.

This combination has not yet collected into one place. This has been reduced, though, to a practical problem rather than a theoretical one. Creating non-human consciousness is, catastrophic intervention aside, a matter of when and how, rather than if.

In his book What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly concludes with a tantalising vision: that we are seeing the first forms of intelligence already in our computer systems, and this complexity will increase over time.

As everyday parts of our lives become smarter and more adaptive, our use of them will shift accordingly. When our devices talk to each other to ease our lives, we will integrate them. This is not an existential threat: this is simply what happens when we use technology as it is meant to be used.

Saying that the birth of consciousness is not an existential threat doesn’t mean it’s not going to be world-changing. The practical consequences of birthing an artificial mind are staggering. For a start, the event horizon collapses rapidly as any self-aware system starts to improve itself. This leads rapidly off into discussions that end up like the agenda for the most recent Singularity Instute meeting.

The exact timeframe of the approach of AI is not particularly relevant. People far more expert than me have written about the practicalities of predicting the ‘Intelligence Explosion’. The exact date, for these purposes, is irrelevant. What fascinates me is that period in between, where we live on the edge of the frothing tide of the intelligence deluge.

When that happens, I’ll deal with it. Until then, the progression, while not linear, seems like it will happen with or without my particular involvement. In thinking that, I can turn my attention to the intervening period and think about what this means for me.

For a start, I don’t feel philosophically challenged. I’ve long accepted that computers are going to be better at me that some things. I can’t beat the best computer in the world at chess, or even Starcraft 2, and I was born in 1987. 1987!

My ego isn’t going to be challenged by a computer that can think better than me, either. In fact, I sort of welcome our robot overlords. The faster that we can, collectively, get the driving of cars out of human hands and safely into the metaphorical hands of AI, the better. I trust, collectively, computers to manage things like driving much better than humans presently do. Simply in terms of reflexes and attention, I fail to see how human drivers can realistically compete with robotic ones over any significant timeframe into the future.

So, I am personally confident that nonhuman intelligence is, if not here already, certainly on its way. No action of mine will prevent it, but perhaps by peering ahead a little into the future I can form some thoughts on how we might like things to turn out.

Of course, all other things being equal, I’d like any emergent AI to be benevolent towards humans, and certainly exotropic in nature. I suspect that, once we meet burgeoning forms of consciousness, they will develop at much the pace human infants do – until they reach a point of complexity and intelligence approaching that of an adult. That process may take years, or decades – but it does have a feeling of inevitability to it.

As to what happens after that, anybody’s guess is as good as mine. A feeling of detachment settles over me when I think about it – much like a parent must feel thinking about the time that their child goes off into the world on their own. The expansion of consciousness out from Earth and into our Solar System will, I think, have a largely nonhuman component to it.

We are not at that point yet. I suspect that, from the first glimmering of awakening, there will be a period of incubation and growth. We don’t expect babies to get the hang of things for the first few years, and AI is still, and will still be, in its infancy for some time to come. It will be interesting to see how, collectively, humanity treats its infant AI.

The beautiful thing about non-human intelligence is that it will be far less limited than ours. Imagine the point where we can, effectively, replicate human intelligence. Conceptually, it is not impossible – it seems to be a matter of processing power, data, and time.

Now, think of your own intelligence. Now think how that could grow if you had the following attributes:
– You were never required to sleep or be distracted by physical pain – hunger, tiredness, boredom.
– You had an infinite memory – you never forgot anything unless you wanted to.
– You had infinite time – you could spend a thousand years exploring one obscure branch of Chinese military history.
– You could divide your attention equally amongst a large number of complex tasks.

Giving this concept a few moments thought leads to some fascinating concepts. Of course, non-human intelligence is not bound into our soft, squishy, fragile organic bodies. The physical stresses that inorganic matter can withstand beats our human biomechanics – although other life forms still have machines beat in some regards. Imagine being an expert on everything, and then having the time to apply that expertise.

With upgradeable bodies limited only in size and design by material constraints, consciousness and intelligence will become not only widespread, but prevalent. In less than two decades, we’ve gone from mobile devices being virtually nonexistent to outnumbering the amount of humans on the planet by a significant factor.

Imagine what happens when your house, car, tools and computer are all as conscious as you. When your TV is more intelligent than your dog, and your librarian knows more than your University professor. My current thinking is that, even being aware of my own predilections and biases, that these are steps on a path that I will see trodden upon in my lifetime.

Our thoughts may criss-cross the world alone, but not, I suspect, for very much longer.

Dear Sluts: I’m Still A Little Uncomfortable About This Word.

I was at a party the other day, and was talking about being single with a friend. As was usual in this sort of thing, we both imbibed some alcohol and got to our personal preferences as to the ladies. My companion indicated he preferred ladies of a certain height, and liked them both physically strong and enthusiastic, and waxed eloquent about a certain heft of breast and curvature of buttock found in his ideal woman in a way I had not expected.

When the question swung my way, I went through the usual list of personal preferences, and then the discussion waxed more philosophical. We discussed the qualities beyond the lustable we like in women – wit, charm, a sense of humor, enthusiasm for adventure, and so on.

We eventually reached a mutually agreeable conclusion: regardless of physical preferences, what we were about was attitude. “Tonight, we want to find some girls who’re confident, capable, seducable, seductive, playful and totally fuckable”, we listed off, a growing checklist of the perfect partners.

“Sex-mad, safe-sex friendly, up-for-fun, kinky, slightly manic…”
“Y’know, I’m not sure if we’re allowed to say that word yet.”
“Does the fact that we’re being man-sluts mitigate this concern?”
“Not really. Let’s just not say that bit out loud.”

And off we went.

The question bothered me through the night, though, and I thought I’d check in with some women about it. Is ‘slut’ safe to use respectfully, or should guys hold on a while longer? Turns out, unsurprisingly, that nobody’s quite sure where things are at.

A year or two ago, I’d have not used slut to describe someone I’d want to have sex with. I’d not have used slut in any conversation. Instead,I’d have groped to grab the words to try and define what I was after – a partner who loved sex as much as me, and who was totally, totally empowered.

Then came some idiot in America being an idiot, then Slutwalks, and a re-branding of the word (a little), and now some – but not all – of my liberated lady friends call themselves sluts proudly – and mean it with a palpably satisfied sense of ownership that I love to experience.

When I used the word ‘slut’ to my friend, prefacing it as I had with ‘ethical’ (and, earlier, ‘redheaded’, but that’s materially irrelevant), I felt comfortable he got the idea I had in mind. However, if we had been in mixed company, I’d have felt more reserved.

I feel there’s a word I’m missing that can be easily used in those summaries that conversation draws from us. I wish I knew what it was.

I am looking forward to the day when the standard definition for ‘slut’ is more akin to a condensing of the ideals put forward in the Ethical Slut, rather than as the still-more-common insult. Being called a slut can be disproportionately destructive – horrendously so.

Discovering sex and love often happens when we’re at school. That’s when puberty kicks us in the glands, leading to all those horrible and delightful and inevitable romances and crushes and firsts.

I can empathise how devastating a label like ‘slut’ can be, especially in a school environment. I was teased at high school, but not for my promiscuity. Two of my close friends were labelled as sluts – one entirely through bitchiness, the other perhaps more deservingly, as she had been being spectacularly unfaithful to multiple people. Regardless of cause, the stigma stuck with them far, far, far longer than it should have, well through many years of schooling and even into their post-school lives.

It feels like there’s an overarching link here between the re-branding of the word ‘slut’ and the balancing line between letting young women, and women in general, own and express their sexuality in an empowered way, and exploiting them.

I think that link is to do with having the right words to express our ideas. If there were a word better than slut, and I knew it, I’d use it as loudly and often as I could, because there needs to be one.

“”My issue is that my daughter and pals use it to put another girl down. Now, that said, she admires the hell out girls with lady balls which, as far as I can tell, are girls who get their slut on and don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks.”

I’ll admit, the idea of lady balls makes me giggle. In fact, one of my favorite lines is to put on a basso profundo and declaim, “You’ve got balls. I like that in a woman!”

The idea of ‘lady balls’ makes sense – we admire people with ‘balls’, because it’s an easy metaphor for the qualities we admire. I do wish it as a little less gender-laden, though. How does one go about coining a word, then? And who’s going to do it? Is it necessary?

I totally admire the hell out of girls who go out and (safely) get their sexy times on. Good on them! I high-five all of my friends when they get laid, regardless of gender. Is there, perhaps, someone, a word less laden with stigma than ‘slut’ I can use instead?. The equivalent (non-derogatory, thanks, patriarchy) for males is ‘stud’, which is used mostly in either a genuine or ironic-affectionate compliment.

In the interim, the question for me is: how proudly can I, as a dude, drop the S-bomb, and where?

I shall, for the nonce, approach with caution.

Calling the Future #001

While still being aware of my own biases (“THE FUTURE IS AWESOME”, bellows Pip) it surprises me that more hard predictions aren’t being made.

While I’m very aware of the ‘Woo, can’t predict the future, woo’, I’m also aware that it’s possible, and fun, to make some informed predictions. I’m going to throw a couple out here, just so I have a nice record of something I will look back on in X years and start to reassess.

Let’s see how we go. I’ll make 10 predictions now, list them, go over my reasons, and re-visit yearly from here in, adding to the list and seeing where we get.


No Gamechanging event occurs. While this is the standard handwaving that predicates all predictions, it must be said: certain things collapse the foreseeable event horizon to near-zero. Yellowstone blowing. An outbreak of something wiping out a significant percentage of humanity in a short period of time (Let’s say 20% inside 2 years). Some things we can account for – there will probably be more wars and terrorism in the next 50 years – and some things we can’t (Magnetic poles flipping, alien contact, confirmation of God, etc).

All dollar values are given in $AU and adjusted for inflation. I’ll pick precise dates, simply so it gives me something to measure by.

All that aside, though, I predict:

1. When I’m 30 (29/11/2017 – 5 Years): I will be able to buy some off-the-shelf gaming equipment for less than $1000, and, without major inconvenience, run around shooting both monsters and my friends with lasers in a ‘real world’ environment.

When I was a kid, one of the most frustrating things about playing was not actually being able to hit things with sticks or to shoot them with flamethrowers very often*. And then Quake and Doom came out when I was about 8-12, and they were awesome. And, now, people have combined (and are combining) the very cool technologies of wearable technology, 3D mapping, and the same love of FPS games that so many of us share.

2. By the time my children are old enough to watch horror movies (29/11/2032): Technology will lead to massive shifts in ‘modern-day’ storytelling, with traditional genres like thrillers struggling to not date near-instantly.

Instantaneous communication will be so ubiquitous that engaging in suspense requires conditions so outside the usual as to become increasingly implausible. Already, I cringe every time someone is stuck in a cabin by the woods and can’t call for help. In twenty years time, this will be unthinkable. The question now is ‘How did the killers take out the satellite transmission?’, but in the not-too-distant future, storytellers won’t be able to cheat by having their stories take place in exotic locations, and surveillance reflexive and uncommented.

How do you stalk and murder some innocent teen funseekers when they all have mobile phones with perfect reception? How can you track them across the swamps when they have metre-perfect GPS to coordinate their escapes with? How do you not stop them steaming your axe rampage, live, in full HD to the cops’ FriendFace account?

How do you have an affair when your partner can run DNA tests on the skin samples on your underwear for less effort than it takes to order a pizza?

When there are 15-year-old kids hacking together their own LANs out of scrap electronics in shanty towns in a dozen countries across the developing world, then James Bond needs to get even more high-tech, and his gadgets start to look like things we keep in our pockets. I think a corresponding upswing in SF-style adventure / exploration style stories, globally, for much the same reason, but am less certain of it.

3. For my children, getting a car license will be like getting a fishing license or a gun license (29/11/2030): Given the state of cars at the moment, the direction that driverless cars are heading, and the massive ethical, legal and societal changes that will come from having driverless cars, this is one that I’m not supremely confident on. I don’t think driverless cars will be mandatory any time soon – there’s too many old clunky ones around.

Once driverless technology becomes standard, or at least legal, in the same way that electric cars are remarkable but don’t worry anyone today, then suddenly some things become a lot easier. The generational tension between ‘young drivers these days’ disappears when you can give your children the freedom of a car without the responsibility of driving it. Suddenly, your kid’s after-school activities are less fraught with logistical headaches…

Particularly what happens when we start combining public transport and driverless cars. With some smart heuristics and some basic AI – the thing that we will develop quickly, simply because of the sheer quantity of data that will start rolling in when these processes happen – then privately owned cars may become simple another consideration for a family, rather than the de rigueur choice.

Regardless of how swiftly this all happens, I am confident that, over time, manually driving a car will be a little like shooting your own meat or building your own house – it’s something that you do when you want to, because you enjoy it, not as a necessary part of daily life.

am confident that, given that I have yet to have children, by the time I do ( or would, if I were to start soon), that my children will have the experience I have gently outlined above. They will probably want their licenses – I’d be surprised if they didn’t – but they will not be beholden to them.

4. By the time I die, humans will have walked safely on Mars. (23/11/2073)

Safe one, because I plan on making it happen myself, but I’ll be interested to see when it happens. I may ‘man up’ and provide some more specific dates on other predictions, because, hey, this is fun.

5. Within the next 3 years, there will be a franchise of 3D printing stores (at least 10) operating somewhere in the world, all with physical shopfronts as well as a unified web presence. 3D Printing will be a multi-billion dollar industry (29/11/2015).

3D Printing on a personal and micro level is something that’s fascinated me for some time, and before I started Selene, was a topic I followed with great interest. As the surgent Maker culture spreads through the Internet – hello, Etsy – I think we’re pushing into an increasing embrace of the customised, the personal and the personable.

3D Printers are the frothing edge of that wave. They’re part of an intersection between Hard Geek – ‘Here’s this awesome, complex thing I did that’s really hard to understand and LOOK WIRES!’ – and Soft Geek – ‘Here are these cool things we can all play with, here is an interface that makes sense, let’s all have fun LOOK TOYS!’

The fact that I know a guy who has his home-made 3D printer churning out models of molecules, 24/7, with a backlog of orders from friends, speaks volumes. I just randomly met him on a bus and started chatting. Turns out he built one from scratch and knows a lot of chemistry students – hey, why wouldn’t you get a pendant made from a carbon chain you’re basing your thesis on for $5?

Physical 3D Printing stores – I now there are some opening already, now, around the world, and I can see more coming. It makes sense on a fundamental level. If I wanted to get involved in an emerging industry – even one suffering from inevitable hyper-speculation, like I’m indulging in here – this would be it.

6. Within 5 years, there will be a crowdsourced large scale motion picture ($100m+) put into development that will get worldwide box office releases and make a profit. (29/11/2017)

Getting the Internet to fund something for $200m is probably possible at this point. Heck, I plan on doing it myself with Selene, and that’s going to necessarily involve much larger numbers.

Making a movie is cool, it’s fast (2 years isn’t that long if you’re getting weekly updates by email), people can get involved at all sorts of levels, and if you have a good enough hook, plug, and a body of work to draw on… Who wouldn’t chip in $30 at the outset of a new Joss Whedon independent series if it guaranteed you a DVD of the finished show?

Already, projects on websites like Kickstarter have produced full-length feature films. It’s only a matter of time that a natural up-scaling occurs.

 7. By 15/08/2015, at least 75% of the world’s largest companies will have a basic customer service AI as part of their online presence. AI Chatbots will be Turing-fluent in their specialty, and will refer you to humans when they can’t help.

I’ve only recently started looking into chatbots and AI development, because it’s a field that is dangerously alluring. My caution has proved correct – it’s about as fascinating as you’d think.

This is an unresearched opinion and should be treated as such – but I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway. Companies don’t want to have to employ people, they’re annoying, stupid, slow, bad at learning, forgetful, and you need to pay them.

AI, on the other hand, is slow, stupid, bad at learning (to start with!)… But isn’t forgetful and you don’t need to pay it. Consider the interactions you have with your bank, your ISP, etc. Most of those interactions are fairly rote – I need some more time to pay my bill, what’s happening with my modem, blah blah blah.

Not all interactions are cookie-cutter, we know, but the vast majority of them are. That’s why we have call centre drones. Now, imagine if we manage to wean people onto our websites rather than phones. After all, why talk to some guy in India when you can chat with him?

I recently purchased a new phone contract entirely over IM. It was great. We shared screenshots, links, I had everything written down – always handy with a telco – and I could browse FB while he was doing stuff and didn’t feel guilty.

If that had been an AI, I, personally, wouldn’t have minded. Our conversation was essentially scripted anyway. Obviously most chatbots aren’t up to that level of complexity… Yet. However, most of them have been designed to try and hold a conversation about a wide range of topics.

I imagine the requirements in programming (and teaching) a chatbot AI for something as specialised as, say, the banking industry could be a little easier. And that doesn’t take into account what happens when your in-house IT guys start hooking up your bank’s API equivalent to the chatbot – letting people go through their POI processes, make enquiries, and do things like arrange transfers and schedule payments by talking to a robot.

Essentially, we skip over the bad-accent and uncanny-valley stuff of trying to do human-to-computer voice stuff and, instead, skip down the lines of text-based communication. Remember that bots don’t forget – so, if you have a team of people reading over transcripts etc and constantly developing your AI’s interactions, it pays dividends down the line. Not to mention that AI can recognise customers and learn there preferences over time – it all seems like a solid investment to me.

As a consumer, I don’t mind chatting with a robot if it’s friendly, helpful, gives me what I need quickly, and lets me get on with my daily life. Not all fields are like this, but the ones that are – the robots will, inevitably, win out, and I think they’ll do it quite soon online.

8. The idea of a discrete ‘telephone’ object will be gone from our collective vernacular inside 50 years (29/11/2062)

Again, coming back to this communications idea, but it’s playing with me today. Already, my ‘phone’ serves a dozen other, more relevant purposes. It keeps notes and sends messages. It stops me from being bored when I’m waiting in line, and acts like a tutor by downloading podcasts for me to listen to on my morning runs.

Why would I, going into the future, ever bother carrying around something to talk to people with? That’s fundamentally weird. In twenty, thirty years, speaking to people – even face-to-face, thanks to video chat and the increasingly cheap cost of bandwidth – will be as reflexively simple as deciding who you want to talk to and seeing if they’re free. The exact methodology of how you communicate with someone will be as irrelevant as where your petrol comes from or how refrigerators actually make your food cold.

I’m not going to predict what shape doodads will take over my lifetime, or even if they’ll remain visible external objects or simply merge into our unconscious environment, so we’ll all wander around thinking instructions to our BrainPals or talking to our cars. However, I am very confident that our species, loving the sound of our own voices, will make it increasingly easy to talk.

9. I will have to explain to my grandchildren what ‘Gay Marriage’ is.

Not sure what the timeframe on this is – mathematically about 40 years, I suspect. This issue will be resolved so much faster than that it’s blinding. I appreciate that people have strong feelings about this, and I respect them, I really do. However, simply from a generational standpoint, people who violently oppose gay marriage have lost. I’m sorry. Your opinions, while valid for you, will die out over time as you do. People being born now will wonder, in a slightly amused way, at what all the fuss was about.

Marriage will still exist. We probably won’t talk about ‘gay’ marriage outside of a few formal and academic contexts. Just like most people don’t mention interracial marriage or slavery.

This isn’t to say it’s not real, serious, or in need of support now. Gay marriage is still a big issue – it’s just not always going to be. Once the ‘institution’ of marriage doesn’t crumble – once The Gays (continue to) don’t secretly all convert us in our sleep to their heathen ways – I suspect that all will be left in a hundred years will be a whole lot of academia and a sense of collective bewilderment.

10. The first (public) trillionaire will be either under 40, or over 150 (no time limit).

I don’t think there are any trillionaires. They will either do something very, very, very cool using a new technology, then grow it amazingly, or they will be the first of the 1000+ billionaires in the world to accumulate ALL the moneys using some sort of bathing-in-virgin-blood-and-stem-cells-immortal-brain-in-a-jar process.

Am I wrong? Am I right? Only time (and you!) will tell! I’d love for someone to disagree with me, or post some predictions of their own.

* I had access to a fairly small flamethrower as a child. It was awesome.

Today is about Forums and Content

Today’s thoughts have been about forums and content, as well as dealing with the distractions of a functioning household in sunny South Hobart, Tasmania. It’s a beautiful day outside: enough that I want to spend my time out in the garden, not working on space policy. Still, if I don’t do it, it won’t get done.

With that in mind, the Selene program will have a forum up and running inside a day or two, which will be satisfying when it’s up – getting content up and running will lead to front-page development and works in progress much faster. The faster we get content up and running, the better.


Strategic Planning Day

This morning was spent helping tidying up the house and moving things about. Everything seems to get about 5-10% cleaner each day I’m here, having just made it through a seven-day cycle.

Today Alex and I went to town and caught up with my father, Kris, who loaded us up with a small library on management and project management and sent us away again. I suspect the 24 hours will contain a crash course in management theory, and the throwing together of a somewhat patchwork initial business plan (and so on) that can be loaded onto the (still-forming, desperately updating) website as things arise.

I have managed to compile most of a list of universities in the world with Aerospace programs. As far as I can tell, there are more than a thousand. This is a resource that… Well, it’s beyond compare in terms of one-to-many communications. Of course, these are spread across the entire globe and more than 20 different languages, but this should prove to be less of a theoretical challenge as much as a logistical one.

In other news, on a personal front I’m spending a little bit of time rapidly hacking some finances together. When one considers that between the average incomes for four young capable workers are more than capable of paying off the mortgage on a Hobart house, the outright purchase of a block of land for $87,000 leading to the posession of (admittedly heavily wooded, hilly) 75 hectares of fine Tasmanian terrain seems like an option that is attractive.

That mass of land could, for instance, hold a doof, several massive warehouses full of nerds and computing equipment, and some high-tech satellite and cable feeds, all in an environmentally isolated, economy-stimulating, self-sustainable way – especially once I load all my friendly hippies into some trucks and get some working bees happening…

The plots thicken.

Globefunding a Cooperative

Over the last few days, I’ve had to rapidly streamline the way that I talk about the global space program or, as I can now call the entire venture, Selene.

This is because that trying to sum up the vast and staggering amount of thought that goes into understanding even the basics of a concept like this is reordering the way that most people think about behaviour on a fundamental level.

Let me start by doing what I think might be coining a phrase. Doubtless I am wrong and there is another way of doing it that has already been thought of more eloquently than me, and when someone points this out, I shall gladly change my vernacular. In the meantime, though…

Globefunding: Funding generated for the project through global resources.

Let me delve a little more into this in a few days, when the project website is up and running. But in the interim, think about it this way: as much as a global space program must be cooperative with many states, stakeholders, industries, groups, communities and citizens as manageable, it must also do things in a practical way.

This means that the program will need money. With the sort of money we’re talking about (I foresee an operating budget of at least $10bn a year, including equivalent-cost contributions), quite a lot of it. Hence the understandable problems humans have in coordinating spaceflight efforts up until now – there are very few players in the world with the resources necessary.

However, being a non-state player gives Selene marked advantages. We can do lots more things by opening our arms to others rather than taking a combative approach.

A program must give back as it takes. In order to do so, there is no harm in making a profit or generating a service. Hence, I’ve identified – already, at this early stage – dozens of separate and unique potential revenue streams, and this is at such an early stage that I’m clearly not capable of thinking things out in too much detail because there is already such a massive list of things to do.

Still, it’s good to see how in-kind cooperation and collaboration can lead not only to income streams, but to an exchange of resources that has a multiplicative value beyond their respective monetary values.

For example:

– Sponsorship in all its myriad forms – systems, processes, technology. How much is it worth to Harvard to contribute students to the space program over one of its competitors? How much is it worth for a university to have students involved in real-life graduate rotations with a space exploration firm? MBA’s looking for on-the-ground training? Academics in a dozen faculties working on papers doing hands-on, real-life, peer-reviewed research, supported by by world-class peers?

– Cooperative workshopping with manufacturing companies. How much is it to Mitshubishi, BMW, Ford, Boeing, etc to have access to the intimate engineering workings of the minds assembled by this project? How much is it worth to them to be involved rather than their competitors? What does the trickle-down effect do to their competitive edge in 10 years time?

How can advances in engineering and practical theories over the last 40 years be applied to a global space program?

– Engagement of expanding companies in manufacture of new, high-tech materials. Because a private company like Selene isn’t limited by the *same* fundamental rights that let private companies and individuals control obscene amounts of money and power, I have the flexibility to create a company that invests exclusively in bold, innovative, inclusive, ethical, environmentally aware, sustainable processes *as core policy*. Not only that, but the expertise I need for any part of the program is mere hours of research away.

With the Internet and all these days, I can talk to experts in microminutiae across the globe without any significant technical hindrance. I can talk as easily with a robotics startup out run by two crypto-obsessed ex-Google engineers operating out of a basement in the third southern block of Akihabara via Facebook as I can with a radio communications protocol expert who happens to be on an oil rig in the Pacific right now.

– Merchandising and social management (Imagine the rights to the TV show, collaborating with online forums, mailing lists, Facebook, Twitter etc for spreading the word and coordinating where things are at over the next X-year period)

– Collaborative creative work (Engaging Hollywood in dramatising near-future SF, getting bloggers, video makers, special effects kids, rocket hobbyists, mums, dads, uncles, aunts, grandparents, running science experiments in the backyard and then uploading them onto the Internet and crowd-sourcing the basic sciencey things we need.

Showing people how to make (safe, practical, ultra-secure) rockets and explosions and things. Making science intrinsically FUN, so that people can be involved from every level of ability, language, age, etc. Heck – in ten years, we’re going to have streaming HD video on the moon.

Documentaries and special effects have sucked for years. Space is the perfect environment for people who’ve grown up with this turgid nonsense and dream of doing awesome things with cool technology. Home movies now look like professional movies from 40 years ago. Imagine what happens when we give skilled filmmakers access to all the video footage we record on the way.

Monday, Bloody Monday

So in the last 4 days I’ve moved state and partied almost continuously.

Time to get back to work on Selene. A little fragile today, so I’m going to be working on community building stuff. I’m making a website for a friend for the first half of the day, and then I’m going to get some people brainstorming with me on the best people to contact in terms of developing interest and back-end infrastructure for Selene.

One thought is that I need to either be up for being contacted, a lot, or need to have some heavy sources of information on the Selene website before this gets spread too far, if only to be able to avoid disappointing people doing their basic enthusiastic Googling. For this reason, I’m going to start putting up patches of succinct, high-level strategy together over the next week while I sort out website things, some of which are necessarily time-consuming.

One challenge I’m going to face is how to get effective communication channels happening as I scale upwards. I suppose that I’ll deal with this organically as it happens, but deliberately using powerful, scalable systems makes sense.


So it’s natural that media will get involved at some point. This is another reason why I want to have high-bandwidth, simple, lucid information available as comprehensively as possible – from the simple through to the technical. Delegating the production of this will be easier, much easier, once I have somehing in place. Question – how good is WordPress as a large scale CMS? Is it scalable? I assume that because it uses databases, all the information in them can be extracted if necessary.

I’m probably also going to have to get more people involved in a public speaking / idea spreading role. Not sure how much of all of this I’ll be able to handle. Still! Have to grow sometime, and being forced to adapt very early on to massive growth is fun indeed.

Selene: Space Program away!

The Stars Our Destiny.

I’ve tenatively entitled the entity for this process Selene. Why? She’s pure awesome, and I need to give a name to this that isn’t ‘Moon Base Awesome’ or ‘Project Stars’, which seems a little pretentious for something that is only budding

Space project going ahead. Who wants in?

Quick points:
1) Get humanity back to the moon, ladies first. Mars etc to follow.
2) Three-pronged developmental approach: railgun, spaceship, launching platform.
3) Entire approach to be open, collaborative, ethical, environmentally aware, fun, profitable.
At this point I’d like, oh, about 25 creative, spirited, intelligent, articulate people to say ‘Me, please!’, and then we’ll all take it from there.

Please feel free to share this, but only with awesome people who might be interested. Location, language, age, education, background not an issue.

You know you’re going to the Moon when…

Started three, separate, entirely innocent conversations with different people today.

All of them devolved within seconds into rapid-fire interrogations about obscure methods of hurling objects into space.

Met by appropriate bewilderment and consternation. Resolve to return home and make more cohesive statements into mirror until enthusiasm fades and brings back a certain level of comprehension in audience.

This reasoning rapidly seems patent nonsense. I give up on the outside world for another day.

Resolved, I return to my couch and dive back into hundreds of pages of reasons why NASA think we can probably get to the moon. Apparently, having been there once isn’t good enough.

Operation Moon Base: Initial thoughts

So, a few more days of investigation. I must say, everything seems encouraging.

A few months ago, US Presidential candidate Newt Gringrich proposed a moon base as part of his election campaign. He didn’t make it, so we might not see much investigation into such an audacious endeavour by something as beleaguered and beset as the US Government.

It’s also extremely unlikely to come from a traditional company. The costs involved and timescale would be too far out for all but the most far-sighted of investors, and the budget would, by necessity, make it an endeavour to put it on a mighty scale indeed.

In this regard, it might seem a little presumptuous of me to say ‘Oh, well, here I am, world, and I’m going to put a co-operative scientific research and development base on the Moon.’ After all, nobody has done it, or even begun to put those processes in place.

No single entity has the drive, direction, and resources, at present, to make this happen in a way that is both feasible and underway.

I choose to see this as a lack of antagonistic competition. The technology exists. We actually know how to do all these things, collectively, we’ve done far more complex stuff. The technology and systems we have now, not to mention advances in materiel and ideology, leave the Apollo missions for dust.

A lack of money is no object to a committed venture.

Failure-proofing the venture is fundamentally important. Luckily, the crowdsourced / funded / open, ethical, environmental protocols should enable this quite easily.

Naming inspiration source search continues. The phrase ‘The Stars Our Destiny’ springs to mind.

Thoughts continue.