Futurology, Opinion, Technology


There are many different ways to discuss “post-scarcity”.

The traditional idea is that all material goods are available at no cost, kinda like the replicators in Star Treks TNG and DS9. However, even in the Trek universe, replicators used power, and this allowed replicator rationing to be a plot point in Star Trek Voyager.

Even without a magic Santa Claus machine, you could say post-scarcity happens per-resource and per-location, rather than as a single one-time-covers-everything event. I would argue that Switzerland is post-scarcity for water because it’s available for free in public fountains throughout the country.

By the measure “does it have second-hand value?”, the G7 is post-scarcity for biros and paper, because nobody keeps track of which biro belongs to who or cares if someone steals a pen or a sheet of photocopier paper.

You could even say the G7 is post-scarcity for cups, because you can’t give them away (I’ve tried) — you only pay money for cups because you want that one in particular or you can’t be bothered collecting the free ones other people are throwing out; likewise, the G7 is post-scarcity for hairbands because there are enough clean ones lying on the street you never need to buy them (that observation courtesy of the ridiculous degree of penny-pinching thriftiness which I inherited from my father).

There is at least one more category: things which we have so much of that we harm ourselves by having it. Artificial light — light pollution is a a thing; Food — obesity and conditions associated with it cause 14% of premature deaths in Europe; Communications — spam, personalised propaganda, attention economics.

I wonder what the world would look like if we all had too much of the very things we still strive for precisely because they are not attainable. What could “too much room” in our houses even mean? How could we “travel too much” or “learn too many things”?

Futurology, history, Personal, Politics


It is important to keep track of one’s mistakes — you can’t learn to be better if you don’t.

Here is one of mine from 2016:

“Trump and Clinton are both equally awful”.

Ye gods, how I wish that was so. I saw each as just two more in the same mould as all other American politicians: a rich narcissist, out of touch with the lived reality of the average person.

Here’s another, also from 2016 — my reply to a blogpost asking various questions about Brexit, with my 2020 annotations as emphasised text:

My expectations:

The UK votes to leave, Cameron resigns. One half of the population hates the other half. Redacted person name very happy. Correct.

France very relieved, they didn’t much like us anyway. Comme ci, comme ça.

France tries to set up a financial centre to attract all the business currently in the City of London; mostly this fails and they go to Zurich, Luxembourg, Geneva and Frankfurt in that order. Eh, close enough.

House prices collapse as Russian oligarchs move to New York, Frankfurt (or Zurich, if they are able to buy property there). Nope!

German citizens regard us as kids who threw our toys out of the pram. Politicians treat us accordingly. Correct.

Politicians, by necessity, have a number of sociopathic traits. Therefore they take a brutal approach to us in order to discourage other nations from leaving. (Our politicians are no better, and would be as obtuse as possible to Scotland if Scotland left the UK!). Greece is terrified, stays where it is. I’d say ‘wrong’, but it is notable that the most vocal Leavers say this is exactly what has happened.

We remain in NATO, Interrail. We probably don’t stay in EUHIC. NATO yes, left Interrail, will leave EUHIC at the end of the transition period, so 2/3 correct.

Businesses campaign to keep our standards in sync with EU standards to keep their costs down. Hard to tell. I keep hearing that Businesses are afraid to rock the boat, but hate everything that’s going on. How true that is, I do not know.

After 2 years, we leave EU. We stop paying into the CAP, receive no rebate. UK food producers upset their goods no longer given “protected region” status (or whatever the name is) in the EU. Two years? Incorrect. CAP/rebate? Correct. Geographical Indications? Looks like the UK is keeping them, despite some news stories saying otherwise. Either that or the UK government is giving incorrect advice, a possibility which I only even mention because of how it is acting throughout the Corona virus pandemic. 1/3.

Welsh economy collapses further as it no longer receives money from EU as a “severely deprived region”. Hard to tell, what with the Corona virus being a much bigger problem for all the economies everywhere.

British Islamic fundamentalist terrorists find it more difficult to reach EU countries, commit acts in UK instead. Again, hard to tell because of the Corona virus.

Britain replaces Human Rights Act with something that doesn’t mention the right to life, the right to privacy, the right to free association, or the right to trade unions. I still think this will happen, but after the transition period is over.

Commonwealth states further away than EU, not as rich. This makes for less effective trade. I still think this is the case, but no way to tell until after the transition period is over.

Fish stocks replenish as Spanish no longer allowed to fish in UK waters. This is enforced with at least one gunboat, leading to Spanish newspapers calling for the Spanish government to kick out all the Brits living in Spain. The Spanish government debates this, to the surprise of nobody except the English (on the one hand they no longer need to allow us, on the other the expats might be the only ones preventing further house price collapse). I am surprised to find I wrote this, so count this as “false” even if it later comes true — nobody deserves points for predicting a coin toss will be “either heads or tails”.

All those “twinned with” signs disappear, from a combination of vandalism and a lack of will to replace them. I think this is plausible, but less than 50% chance that more than a handful will be so affected in the next 12 months.

Meanwhile, rapid automation messes around with every economy at once. This is blamed on Brexit, despite having nothing to do with it. (Alternative: we remain, the economic mess from automation is blamed on the EU by the UK and the UK by France). Corona virus doesn’t count. Check again around 2025.

One of several reasons I no longer talk to the person I was replying to back then, is that their response to this was:

“Given your general stance seems to be that everything is doomed whatever anybody does, it’s hard to take seriously your claim that one course of action will doom us more than any other. :-p”

Futurology, Minds, Philosophy, Politics, SciFi, Technology, Transhumanism

Sufficient technology

Let’s hypothesise sufficient brain scans. As far as I know, we don’t have better than either very low resolution full-brain imaging (millions of synapses per voxel), or very limited high resolution imaging (thousands of synapses total), at least not for living brains. Let’s just pretend for the sake of argument that we have synapse-resolution full-brain scans of living subjects.

What are the implications?

  • Is a backup of your mind protected by the right to avoid self-incrimination? What about the minds of your pets?
  • Does a backup need to be punished (e.g. prison) if the person it is made from is punished? What if the offence occurred after the backup was made?
  • If the mind state is running rather than offline cold-storage, how many votes do all the copies get? What if they’re allowed to diverge? Which of them is allowed to access the bank accounts or other assets of the original? Is the original entitled to money earned by the copies?
  • If you memorise something and then get backed up, is that copyright infringement?
  • If a mind can run on silicon for less than the cost of food to keep a human healthy, can anyone other than the foremost mind in their respective field ever be employed?
  • If someone is backed up then the original is killed by someone who knows the person was backed up, is that murder, or is it the equivalent of a serious assault that causes a small duration of amnesia?
AI, Futurology, Opinion, Philosophy

Memetic monocultures

Brief kernel of an idea:

  1. Societies deem certain ideas “dangerous”.
  2. If it possible to technologically eliminate perceived dangers, we can be tempted to do so, even when we perceived wrongly.
  3. Group-think has lead to catastrophic misjudgments.
  4. This represents a potential future “great filter” for the Fermi paradox. It does not apply to previous attempts at eliminating dissenting views, as they were social, not technological, in nature, and limited in geographical scope.
  5. This risk has not yet become practical, but we shouldn’t feel complacent just because brain-computer-interfaces are basic and indoctrinal viruses are fictional, as universal surveillance is sufficient and affordable, limited only by sufficiently advanced AI to assist human overseers (perfect AI not required).
Futurology, Maps, Opinion, Politics

Oh no

I didn’t make this blog to rant about politics, yet that seems to be a thing I’ve done all to often, and with this post I will have done it again.

Brexit. Ugh.

When the results came in, I thought it would be minor — why else would anyone be willing to put it to a referendum? — and so, despite losing, didn’t feel dismay or despair or anger.

Then Cameron resigned, then the pound dropped more than the stated worst case scenario for economic damage and stayed low, then May promised an outcome so extreme that Leave campaigners had previously dismissed the possibility as “project fear”, then… you know what, it doesn’t matter much how or why I got scared.

What matters is that for the last few years, I’ve been alternating between a few different models for how this will work out. Which one I expect depends on part on which of cancel/hard/WTO I think most likely:

  1. D20 × 100,000 (100k-2M) fatalities.

    Graph showing all sixty possible numbers from the set of dice rolls D6^D10, sorted by how big the number is (y-axis is logarithmic)

  2. D6^D10 fatalities (see graph, 1-60,466,176 fatalities)
  3. Population-adjusted Troubles:
    ~165k fatalities, 2.2 million injured
  4. Population-adjusted Irish Potato Famine: 20-25% depopulation, half by death the rest by emigration, 6.6M-8.3M of each.

If these numbers seem unreasonably high to you, ask yourself: why?

But that’s just a summary of where we’re at, it’s not news, not really.

What is news is a recent survey by the university of Cardiff which shows that about 2/3rds of both Leavers and Remainers think that political violence in support of their side is justified if it means “winning”. I’m sad to say that matches my gut instinct that one side is sincere when it claims it’s living in a humiliating dictatorship and leaving will do no real harm, while the other is equally sincere when it claims that leaving will leave many dead.

  • Most Leave voters across all three countries think violence towards MPs is a ‘price worth paying’ for Brexit – 71% in England, 60% in Scotland and 70% in Wales. The majority of Remain voters across all three countries think violence towards MPs is a ‘price worth paying’ to Remain – 58% in England, 53% in Scotland and 56% in Wales.
  • A majority of Remain voters across all three countries think protests in which members of the public are badly injured are a ‘price worth paying’ to stop Brexit and remain in the EU – 57% in England, 56% in Scotland and 57% in Wales. Even larger majorities of Leave voters in all three countries think protests in which members of the public are badly injured are a ‘price worth paying’ to achieve Brexit – 69% in England, 62% in Scotland and 70% in Wales.


This survey does not say that 2/3rds will commit political violence. It also does not say that 2/3rds will accept the corollary, of violence done against them as a cost for winning.

However, even if nobody is violent (please, for Christmas, I wish nobody was violent), given that only 3.5% have to quietly and persistently be disobedient for even a belligerently totalitarian dictatorship to fall (https://bigthink.com/politics-current-affairs/the-3-5-percent-solution), the UK is unsustainable in any possible outcome. Leave, remain, the UK is over, it’s finished… ugh, and it’s not going to be as simple as splitting up into Scotland, Wales, England, and re-unifying Ireland, as each region is itself divided:


Map of the United Kingdom showing the voting areas for the European Union membership referendum, 2016. Areas marked in blue show a majority of votes in favour of leaving the European Union, while areas marked in yellow show a majority in favour of remaining a member. Credit: various Wikipedia contributors listed in link.

…which basically means people everywhere in the UK other than central London, Oxbridge, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Gibraltar, Derry, and Brighton in the Remain side — and Birmingham, Middlesbrough, Southend-on-Sea, and the three general areas of The Wash National Nature Reserve/Clacton-on-Sea/Lowestoft on the Leave side — could well be facing deep-seated interpersonal violence (hopefully no violence, but Brexit has the habit of finding new ways to disappoint) from their neighbours. The Remain parts aren’t pure Remain and the Leave parts aren’t pure Leave.

I’m expecting the political map of the UK to look something like this by 2030:

Possible British Isles political map 2030.png

Political map of the British Isles circa 2030. Don’t take this too seriously, I briefly considered illustrating the point with a map of chip-shop sauce preferences, which isn’t much less sensible than having the city of York independent from an independent Yorkshire.

That said, there is a way I can be wrong. This is all predicated on treating people’s words as sincere, and my repeated mistake over all this has been to do just that. I didn’t have the right concepts in my mind to properly understand my mistake, but I do now: Mistake theory vs. Conflict theory.

Mistake theory is roughly how science works: if two people disagree, at least one of them made a mistake, and if they discuss things openly and with humility they will become less wrong.

Conflict theory is roughly how politics works: there is no real “right side”, only “my side” and “their side”, and any argument is a conflict. There are no real rules in this conflict — lies, propaganda, crimes, whatever — only empowering victory or humiliating defeat.

I believe Leave voters and campaigners are generally in Conflict theory mode. I don’t know whether Remain voters and campaigners are generally Mistake theorists or Conflict theorists, but I suspect Cameron was a Conflict theorist.

The leader of any Conflict theory… tribe?… might be able to prevent that tribe from engaging in violence by merely claiming — without regard to truth one way or the other — victory.

AI, Futurology

Pocket brains

  • Total iPhone sales between Q4 2017 and Q4 2018: 217.52 million
  • Performance of Neural Engine, component of Apple A11 SoC used in iPhone 8, 8 Plus, and X: 600 billion operations per second
  • Estimated computational power required to simulate a human brain in real time: 36.8×1015
  • Total compute power of all iPhones sold between Q4 2017 and Q4 2018, assuming 50% were A11’s (I’m not looking for more detailed stats right now): 6525.6×1015
  • Number of simultaneous, real-time, simulations of complete human brains that can be supported by 2017-18 sales of iPhones: 177


  • Performance of “Next-generation Neural Engine” in Apple A12 SoC used in Phone XR, XS, XS Max: 5 trillion operations per second
  • Assuming next year’s sales are unchanged (and given that all current models use this chip and I therefore shouldn’t discount by 50% the way I did previously) number of simultaneous, real-time, simulations of complete human brains that can be supported by 2018-19 sales of iPhones: 1.30512×1021/36.8×1015 = 35,465


  • Speedup required before one iPhone’s Neural Engine is sufficient to simulate a human brain in real time: 36.8×1015/5×1012 = 7,360
  • When this will happen, assuming Moore’s Law continues: log2(7360)×1.5 = 19.268… years = January, 2038
  • Reason to not expect this: A12 feature size is 7nm, silicon diameter is ~0.234nm, size may only reduce by a linear factor of about 30 or an areal factor of about 900 before features are atomic. (Oh no, you’ll have to buy a whole eight iPhones to equal your whole brain).


  • Purchase cost of existing hardware to simulate one human brain: <7,360×$749 → <$5,512,640
  • Power requirements of simulating one human brain in real time using existing hardware, assuming the vague estimates of ~5W TDP for an A12 SoC are correct: 7,360×~5W → ~36.8kW
  • Annual electricity bill from simulating one human brain in real time: 36.8kW * 1 year * $0.1/kWh = 32,200 US dollars
  • Reasons to be cautious about previous number: it ignores the cost of hardware failure, and I don’t know the MTBF of an A12 SoC so I can’t even calculate that
  • Fermi estimate of MTBF of Apple SoC: between myself, my coworkers, my friends, and my family, I have experience of at least 10 devices, and none have failed before being upgraded over a year later, so assume hardware replacement <10%/year → <$551,264/year
  • Assuming hardware replacement currently costs $551,264/year, and that Moore’s law continues, then expected date that the annual replacement cost of hardware required to simulate a human brain in real time becomes equal to median personal US annual income in 2016 ($31,099): log2($551,264/$31,099) = 6.22… years = late December, 2024

Old predictions, and how they’ve been standing up

The following was originally posted to a (long-since deleted) Livejournal account on 2012-06-05 02:55:27 BST. I have not edited this at all. Some of these predictions from 6 years ago have stood up pretty well, other predictions have been proven impossible.

Predicting the future is, in retrospect, hilarious. Nonetheless, I want to make a guess as to how the world will look in ten years, even if only to have a concrete record of how inaccurate I am. Unless otherwise specified, these predictions are for 2022:

Starting with the least surprising: By 2024, solar power will be the cheapest form of electricity for everyone closer to the equator than the north of France. Peak solar power output will equal current total power output from all sources, while annual average output will be 25%. Further progress relies on developments of large-scale energy storage systems, which may or may not happen depending on electric cars.

By 2022, CPU lithography will either reach 4nm, or everyone will decide it’s too expensive to keep on shrinking and stop sooner. There are signs that the manufacturers may not be able to mass produce 4nm chips due to their cost, even though that feature size is technically possible, so I’m going to say minimum feature size will be larger than you might expect from Moore’s law. One might assume that they can still get cheaper, even if not more powerful per unit area, but there isn’t much incentive to reduce production cost if you don’t also reduce power consumption; currently power consumption is improving slightly faster than Moore’s law, but not by much.

LEDs will be the most efficient light source; they will also be a tenth of their current price, making compact fluorescents totally obsolete. People will claim they take ages to get to full brightness, just because they are still energy-saving.

Bulk storage will probably be spinning magnetic platers, and flash drives will be as obsolete in 2022 as the floppy disk is in 2012. (Memristor based storage is an underdog on this front, at least on the scale of 10 years.)

Western economies won’t go anywhere fast in the next 4 years, but might go back to normal after that; China’s economy will more than double in size by 2022.

In the next couple of years, people will have realised that 3D printers take several hours to produce something the size of a cup and started to dismiss them as a fad. Meanwhile, people who already know the limitations of 3D printers have already, in 2011 used them for organ culture — in 10 to 20 years, “cost an arm and a leg” will fall out of common use in the same way and for the same reason that “you can no more XYZ than you can walk on the Moon” fell out of use in 1969 — if you lose either an arm or a leg, you will be able to print out a replacement. I doubt there will be full self-replication by 2022, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

No strong general A.I., but the problem is software rather than hardware, so if I’m wrong you won’t notice until it’s too late. (A CPU’s transistors change state a hundred million times faster than your neurons, and the minimum feature size of the best 2012 CPUs is 22nm, compared to the 200nm thickness of the smallest dendrite that Google told me about).

Robot cars will be available in many countries by 2020, rapidly displacing human drivers because they are much safer and therefore cheaper to insure; Taxi drivers disappear first, truckers fight harder but still fall. Human drivers may be forbidden from public roads by 2030.

Robot labour will be an even more significant part of the workforce. Foxconn, or their equivalent, will use more robots than there are people in Greater London.

SpaceX and similar companies lower launch costs by at least a factor of 10; these launch costs combine with standardised micro-satellites allow at least one university, 6th form, or school to launch a probe to the moon.

Graphene proves useful, but does not become a wonder material. Cookware coated in synthetic diamond is commonplace, and can be bought in Tesco. Carbon nanotube rope is available in significant lengths from specialist retailers, but still very expensive.

In-vitro meat will have been eaten, but probably still be considered experimental by 2020. There will be large protests and well-signed petitions against it, but these will be ignored.

Full-genome sequencing will cost about a hundred quid and take less than 10 hours.

3D television and films will fail and be revived at least once more.

E-book readers will be physically flexible, with similar resolution to print.

Hydrogen will not be developed significantly; biofuels will look promising, but will probably lose out to electric cars because they go so well with solar power (alternative: genetic engineering makes a crop that can be burned in existing power stations, making photovoltaic and solar-thermal plants redundant while also providing fuel for petrol and diesel car engines); fusion will continue to not be funded properly; too many people will remain too scared of fission for it to improve significantly; lots of people will still be arguing about wind turbines, and others will still be selling snake-oil “people-powered” devices.

Machine vision will be connected to every CCTV system that gets sold in 2020, and it will do a better job than any combination of human operators could possibly manage. The now-redundant human operators will argue loudly that “a computer could never look at someone and know how they are feeling, it could never know if someone is drunk and about to start a fight”; someone will put this to the test, and the machine will win.

High-temperature superconductivity currently seems to be developing at random, so I can’t say if we will have any progress or not. I’m going to err on the side of caution, and say no significant improvements by 2022.

Optical-wavelength cloaking fabric will be available by the mid 2020s, but very expensive and probably legally restricted to military and law enforcement.

Most of Kepler’s exoplanet candidates will be confirmed in the next few years; by 2022, we will have found and confirmed an Earth-like planet in the habitable zone of it’s star (right now, the most Earth-like candidate exoplanet (Gliese 581 g) is unconfirmed, while the most Earth-like confirmed exoplanet (Gliese 581 d) is only slightly more habitable than Mars). We will find out if there is life on that world, but the answer will make no difference to most people’s lives.

OpenStreetMap will have replaced all other maps in almost every situation; Facebook will lose it’s crown as The social network; The comments section of most websites will still make people loose faith in humanity; English Wikipedia will be “complete” for some valid definition of the word.

Obama will win 2012, the Republicans will win 2016; The Conservatives will lose control of the UK regardless of when the next UK general election is held, but the Lib Dems might recover if Clegg departs.

Errors and omissions expected. It’s 3am!.

AI, Futurology, Philosophy, Psychology, Science

How would you know whether an A.I. was a person or not?

I did an A-level in Philosophy. (For non UK people, A-levels are a 2-year course that happens after highschool and before university).

I did it for fun rather than good grades — I had enough good grades to get into university, and when the other A-levels required my focus, I was fine putting zero further effort into the Philosophy course. (Something which was very clear when my final results came in).

What I didn’t expect at the time was that the rapid development of artificial intelligence in my lifetime would make it absolutely vital that humanity develops a concrete and testable understanding of what counts as a mind, as consciousness, as self-awareness, and as capability to suffer. Yes, we already have that as a problem in the form of animal suffering and whether meat can ever be ethical, but the problem which already exists, exists only for our consciences — the animals can’t take over the world and treat us the way we treat them, but an artificial mind would be almost totally pointless if it was as limited as an animal, and the general aim is quite a lot higher than that.

Some fear that we will replace ourselves with machines which may be very effective at what they do, but don’t have anything “that it’s like to be”. One of my fears is that we’ll make machines that do “have something that it’s like to be”, but who suffer greatly because humanity fails to recognise their personhood. (A paperclip optimiser doesn’t need to hate us to kill us, but I’m more interested in the sort of mind that can feel what we can feel).

I don’t have a good description of what I mean by any of the normal words. Personhood, consciousness, self awareness, suffering… they all seem to skirt around the core idea, but to the extent that they’re correct, they’re not clearly testable; and to the extent that they’re testable, they’re not clearly correct. A little like the maths-vs.-physics dichotomy.

Consciousness? Versus what, subconscious decision making? Isn’t this distinction merely system 1 vs. system 2 thinking? Even then, the word doesn’t tell us what it means to have it objectively, only subjectively. In some ways, some forms of A.I. looks like system 1 — fast, but error prone, based on heuristics; while other forms of A.I. look like system 2 — slow, careful, deliberative weighing all the options.

Self-awareness? What do we even mean by that? It’s absolutely trivial to make an A.I. aware of it’s own internal states, even necessary for anything more than a perceptron. Do we mean a mirror test? (Or non-visual equivalent for non-visual entities, including both blind people and also smell-focused animals such as dogs). That at least can be tested.

Capability to suffer? What does that even mean in an objective sense? Is suffering equal to negative reinforcement? If you have only positive reinforcement, is the absence of reward itself a form of suffering?

Introspection? As I understand it, the human psychology of this is that we don’t really introspect, we use system 2 thinking to confabulate justifications for what system 1 thinking made us feel.

Qualia? Sure, but what is one of these as an objective, measurable, detectable state within a neural network, be it artificial or natural?

Empathy or mirror neurons? I can’t decide how I feel about this one. At first glance, if one mind can feel the same as another mind, that seems like it should have the general ill-defined concept I’m after… but then I realised, I don’t see why that would follow and had the temporarily disturbing mental concept of an A.I. which can perfectly mimic the behaviour corresponding to the emotional state of someone they’re observing, without actually feeling anything itself.

And then the disturbance went away as I realised this is obviously trivially possible, because even a video recording fits that definition… or, hey, a mirror. A video recording somehow feels like it’s fine, it isn’t “smart” enough to be imitating, merely accurately reproducing. (Now I think about it, is there an equivalent issue with the mirror test?)

So, no, mirror neurons are not enough to be… to have the qualia of being consciously aware, or whatever you want to call it.

I’m still not closer to having answers, but sometimes it’s good to write down the questions.

Futurology, Technology

Hyperloop’s secondary purposes

I can’t believe it took me this long (and until watching this video my Isaac Arthur) to realise that Hyperloop is a tech demo for a Launch loop.

I (along with many others) had realised the stated reason for the related–but–separate The Boring Company was silly. My first thought for that was it was a way to get a lot of people underground for a lot of the time, which would reduce the fatalities from a nuclear war. Other people had the much better observation that experience with tunnelling is absolutely vital for any space colony. (It may be notable that BFR is the same diameter as the SpaceX/TBC test tunnel, or it may just be coincidence).

A similar argument applies to Hyperloop as to TBC: Hyperloop is a better normal-circumstances transport system than cars and roads when colonising a new planet.