Monday, December 17, 2007

When food becomes an issue

The UN is concerned about global food supplies, prices, and the effect of climate disruptions. It's not a trivial question, whether you worry about the impact in human suffering, or about the resulting political instabilities. Right now the main factor behind rising prices seems to be higher demand (in particular from China), so this should lead to rising supplies [*] and hence a new equilibrium. However, climate change will also affect supplies; should the global agricultural system fail to adapt to the changing climate conditions, we'll be looking into a very messy situation.

[*] A caveat here: it depends on specific fiscal and trade policies - few countries have deregulated or economically efficient agricultural sectors, so milleages might and will vary.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

BCI, closer than you think

Brain-Computer Interfaces rapidly approaching medical and commercial use, reports a panel of neuroscientists.

The consequences of this will be incredible; we are talking basically of a new relationship between humans and our machines (not to mention each other, as we are very fond of communicating using machines as intermediaries). This will eventually change how we work, enjoy our free time, communicate, play, etc.

Remember, this isn't science fiction, this is almost product design.

Monday, December 10, 2007

No man is an island, but some interesting projects are

The Dutch are looking into building a 50km artificial island, both for its land value and as a technological showcase. What I find most interesting is not the project itself, but the fact that the Dutch are already looking at increased demand for their water management skills as a result of global warming. I bet it won't be the only such skill in demand during the coming decades.

(Hat tip to Guido at Globally Connected)

“It’s not your imagination.”

For-your-ears-only sonic street ads. I don't use an MP3 player while walking, I prefer reading, but I think that might not going to be an option in the future.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Sex, lies, and credit card numbers

Russian chatbots disguise themselves as women to gather financial information. It's not a new scam from a criminalistic POV, but using software makes it much more scalable. I expect this will only grow; from advertising to customer relationships to scams (note how I made no joke about the difference being a matter of degree and technicalities) it doesn't make sense to send a human to do whatever a program can do.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Open government

We have the technological tools to redefine and enhance the relationship between the government and citizens. But I'm not sure there's a demand for them, and without a strong link to election results, the incentives just aren't there.

Friday, December 7, 2007

What I've been doing. Plus, killer robots.

Startup work, mostly; as fun as it is to talk about the future, it's much more fun to work on it. But I plan to pay more attention to this blog, if nothing else, as a sort of scrapbook for interesting bits.

Like the fact that relatively cheap remotelly controlled warfighting robots have already made it to the CNN. I don't think you can do effective counterinsurgency or nation building with those, but that has seldom stopped military procurement systems in the near past.

Hat tip to the IEET

Friday, November 30, 2007

Global cell phone use at 50 percent

It's not a trivial waypoint. We are very, very connected, and technology adaption is very, very fast. And it's going to get faster.

Global cell phone use at 50 percent

It's not a trivial waypoint.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Biotech meets demography meets (as always) finance

Brandon Kein initiates the discussion about the possible costs of future life-extending therapies. Add to that the grim outlook of fiscal and pension systems even assuming no revolutionary breakthroughs in biotech, and you have the recipe for interesting times ahead.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The glue of globalization

Migration is so central to Western Union that forecasts of border movements drive the company’s stock. Its researchers outpace the Census Bureau in tracking migrant locations. Long synonymous with Morse code, the company now advertises in Tagalog and Twi and runs promotions for holidays as obscure as Phagwa and Fiji Day. Its executives hail migrants as “heroes” and once tried to oust a congressman because of his push for tougher immigration laws.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

When children aren't the future

Sent by Guido of the always interesting Globally Connected:

Japan has the world's highest proportion of elderly people. More than 20% of the population are now over the age of 65. By 2050, that figure is expected to rise to about 40%.

The year 2050 isn't that far away; for Japan to maintain economic viability (not to mention competitiveness), it will take a huge shift in economic, technological, and fiscal structures. They seem to be aware of the fact, at least.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

From the "shouldn't be surprising" department

Porsche makes more money from options trading than from cars. That's not a car-making company, that's a hedge fund with a funny portfolio.

I don't mean it in any demeaning sense; a financial engineering department is as necessary nowadays as an IT department (and for interestingly similar reasons). Of course, the fact that they are doing it doesn't imply that they are doing it right.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Some navel gazing

Let's call it the C Criteria: computational feasibility trumps legality. In other words, if something is computationally unfeasible it won't get done, even if the law says it should (a rather obvious assertion), and its more interesting counterpart, that computationally feasible things will get done, regardless of legality. It only takes one person anywhere having both the desire and the knowledge to make it happen, and presto!

I understand it's impossible for laws to predict situations derived from new technology, but unless at some point the political and legislative processes begin to pay attention to feasibility envelopes, we'll end up with legal systems too out of touch with reality to be useful at all, getting them ignored, and us in a terrible fix.

As seen in Batman Beyond

DARPA is asking Honeywell to develop a way to monitoring analysts' brainwaves to speed up intelligence analysis, an old idea that seems to be getting closer to application. Don't underestimate this and similar efforts: analysing information is the name of the game, be it military intel, market movements, biological data sets, or anything else. There are huge strategic and financial returns on finding out better ways to do these things, and whoever fails to keep up in the effort to understand more data more quickly is going to be at a serious disadvantage.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The future looks like Canada. I hope.

The RCMP announces that it will stop going after 'personal use' downloaders. In their own words, "It is too easy to copy these days and we do not know how to stop it."

True enough.

Over in the US, a proposed bill would tie up financial help to colleges to their anti-piracy initiatives.

Paul Graham wrote in his essay How to be Silicon Valley that a cutting-edge economy needs two things: nerds and rich people. The US is a relatively nice place to be rich, but it's certainly losing some of its attractiveness for nerds.

Thursday, November 8, 2007


Civil UAV patrols in the UK, and Putin is gaining popularity in international polls. Maybe it's related to the half-flu I'm going through, but I'm worried.

Right now Russia is one of the most interesting countries to watch; it's probably at the forefront in applied criminal botnet technology, and Putin's handling of the country as basically an energy company with nuclear weapons is... Perhaps inspiring isn't quite the right word. I do worry, in any case, about political stability as the Russian demographic implosion goes on.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A loop in your brain, coming up soon

At this point, I don't think the future-like aspect of this is the brain-computer interface for Google Earth, but the fact that it was developed in Austria and Slovenia; another indication that this is no longer cutting edge, and perhaps getting closer to wider application.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Anecdotal evidence of the impressive kind

Vegetables growing in Greenland. Most effects of climate change won't be so nice, though.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Genetics just for you

Plos Bio on individualized genomics. Ten or twenty years for now, a person's genetic sequence will be the first and most basic piece of personal data; I expect babies to be sequenced in utero, for at least some digest of the sequence to be part of IDs, etc. Note that "basic" doesn't mean "private"; I don't really think it will be possible for genetic information to be kept under control, for more or less the same reasons that make DRM schemes impractical.

This, of course, will open a can of worms.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Speaking of low barriers of entry...

A hundred very short SF stories from Hectowords (my sometimes slightly more fictional blog), collected as a single pdf here.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The operative word being Yikes

When Bruce Schenier says that we don't know how to deal with a security threat, and that he's worried about what its creators are planning for Phase II, you know we are in trouble.

Not that the fact that there's a huge, sophisticated botnet out there isn't a fascinating reminder that we don't live in Kansas anymore...

Friday, September 28, 2007

Look! Up in the sky!

The skies are getting crowded (and smart): U.S. Special Operations Command wants long-lasting drones, and DARPA is looking for flexible ion engines for spy sats. Expect busy skies in the coming years, everybody competing against everybody else for information dominance.

In other news, yes, space is still mysterious. I get a thrill every time something like this happens.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Misc is always the most interesting category

A chimp personhood trial in Austria. Some commenters note, usefully, that we already grant personhood to some nonhumans (corporations).

Chicago wants automated flagging of 'suspicious behavior' by surveillance cameras (... and a pony; AFAIK, we are still far away from that in terms of actual technological capability - as with electronic voting, though, I'm more worried about a defective system than I'd be about a working one).

Google and Microsoft invest on an online genetic profiling company Seems pretty obvious to me as a business move - they are both in the business of managing information. BTW, I've given up on any sort of ownership or privacy of my genetic code long ago. We give away copies all the time: in medical procedures, shedding skin, whatever, and the whole MP3 issue should have taught us that if something can be ripped and copied, it will be, no matter how many laws you pass against it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Poor Poirot!

I don't think national states are going away, mind you, but of course they are no longer the only players, and internal tensions are appearing in a lot of countries.

Oh, and by the way

Plan for sea levels at least a meter higher in the near future.

Have fun.

Call me cynic, but I'm not counting on Ohio

A few politicians are getting it. But note that agreeing that there's a problem doesn't mean that the incentives are necessarily in place for an effective solution to be implemented.

Monday, September 17, 2007

It is 4AM. Do you really have to care about where your code is running?

A very interesting post by Marc Andreessen on Internet platforms, and where he thinks they are going.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Gray is the new black

Finnish companies do an about-face regarding early retirement: instead of enticing workers to leave early, now they are doing what they can to keep them working for as long as possible. The demographics -for Europe and Japan- are very simple: the workforce is aging and migrants aren't picking up the slack, so you need to get an leverage your older workers.

I think this is going to be one of the battlefronts for nootropics and neurotech during the coming decades, as aging countries -most of them with knowledge-intensive economies- do whatever they can to boost up the productivity of their workers.

When your voice will no longer be your password

From Guido, the globetrotting, hyperconnected mind behind Globally Connected: Vocal tract models are getting us closer to flawlessly imitating anybody's voice. The label of "vocal terror", of course, is idiotic, and in any case if imitating voices is enough to crack your security, you had a lousy security model to begin with (of course, mostly everybody does have a lousy security model, which makes possible things like social engineering hacks).

But if you want silly, vulnerable, expensive technological fixes to what are essentially systemic problems, let me suggest to you implantable devices that add an encrypted authentication signature to your voice on some barely-audible frequency. It won't make your system secure, but it will certainly look cool on your resume.
Geography is already being changed by global warming, with a direct impact in access to resources and trade routes, and hence on geopolitics. Needless to say, this is going to get even more interesting as time goes on...

Monday, September 10, 2007

From Danger Room: Armed Robots Go Into Action

The US is deploying tele-operated ground robots to Iraq, with an eye toward reducing casualties. This is in keeping with the overall theme -increased use of UAVs, tele-operated border stations, etc-, but I have to wonder about the effectiveness of these units for counterinsurgency, which depends on HUMINT.

If I were to ascribe an strategic signification to what is after all still a small-scale deployment, I'd have to note that this is a move that attempts to add to the political shelf life of the occupation by reducing casualties, while reducing at the same time its effectiveness. It's more consistent with a longer-term occupation than with an scenario of relatively quick success and withdrawal.


Sunday, September 2, 2007

Have you ever noticed...

That most proposed uses of AI depend on the violation of one or another of Asimov's Three Laws?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Going on a bit longer about apocalyptic stuff...

Fun factoid from recent Cornell research (taken from the EurekAlert newsitem):

About 40 percent of deaths worldwide are caused by water, air and soil pollution, concludes a Cornell researcher. Such environmental degradation, coupled with the growth in world population, are major causes behind the rapid increase in human diseases (...)

There is no question that ecology is becoming -has become, will become- a core political and economic concern. The only question is how it will be integrated into markets and political systems... and how it will change them. It's not only our ecosystems what will be modified by climate change, and our engineering practices what will have to shift to prevent further damage; our political and societal systems themselves will be deeply modified by these events and our reactions.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The more you look at some things, the less you understand them

Studying the future-like bits of the present is sometimes just an exercise in getting your mind to grasp easily seen things so big or so weird that you can't quite wrap your mind around them. Pandemic risks, global demographic shifts, climate change, emergent technologies... those are easy to grasp.

I find this one much harder:

So. The woman was raped. By three men. She reported her rape. She was harassed by her superiors, to the point where she became too afraid to testify. The Air Force took this as meaning that the sex was therefore consensual (which isn't what it means at all), and charged her in the case of her own rape. If she loses her case, she could be publicly registered as a sex offender.

Sounds like it couldn't get any worse, right? But it does. How? The three alleged attackers were offered sexual assault immunity to testify against Hernandez on the indecent acts charge.


Old age and taxes

From the IMF's Global Aging Pressures: Impact of Fiscal Adjustment, Policy Cooperation, and Structural Reforms:

Demographic pressures will materialize in many economies over the next few decades. We examine the macroeconomic impact of alternative fiscal adjustment and structural reform strategies to address these global aging pressures using the IMF's Global Fiscal Model (GFM). The results suggest substantial spillover effects of aging through international financial channels. To maintain sustainability, fiscal adjustment needs to be broad-based, while avoiding increases in direct taxes. There are substantial benefits from fiscal cooperation, while negative growth effects can be offset by complementary structural reforms in product and labor markets with the benefits accruing early and to all income groups.

Two questions: How sensitive would these results be to increased research in medical technology and applications attempting to extend the range of economically productive ages? Can we shift significantly the point at which medical costs offset the fiscal income derived from that person's activity?

Cheaper than terraforming Mars, in any case

A report on the McKinsey Quarterly (free reg. required) describing abatement costs for greenhouse gases. It's fascinating stuff; for example, the cheaper tons of atmospheric carbon to get rid off (before they are released to the atmosphere, that is) are those that come from developing countries, which doesn't require new tech, but instead coordinated efforts in many countries and industries, some of then highly fragmented. As the report coyly indicates, the politics of this might be challenging.

The bottom line: I think it's economically feasible to stabilize our impact in climate patterns with mature or soon-to-be-mature technology (in the sense that it'd be cheaper that enduring the costs of said climate changes). That doesn't mean it will get done, as the costs and benefits might not be quite aligned yet.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Tracking soldiers but not votes

While the Pentagon is looking at RFID implants for tracking soldiers' physiological parameters, Senate Democrats are backpedaling on a push to ban e-voting machines without paper trails for the '08 election. There's a bit of a disconnect there, unless you realize that an electoral system only has to look good enough for there not to be a legitimacy crisis, and apparently the US public still hasn't quite grasped how much e-voting machines suck; military organizations succeed or fail on their logistics - of men, material, and information.

I'm not very concerned about the privacy implications, given the facts of military life. I'd say that being ordered to jump into a firefight is as dangerous to body integrity as being ordered to insert a chip under your skin, and data self-ownership in a military context is almost a paradoxical idea. An estimated five years before human testing does seem a bit too long, though, considering the current state of the art.