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Sun, Oct. 17th, 2010, 07:13 pm
Another glimpse into the future

When you can see the future, some people who can't often just call you an idiot, and by the time they've caught up, they've forgotten. So it's a thankless gift, but along those lines, I present to you part of the future of surveillance. The device I'm about to describe sounds far-fetched to some, even paranoid, but every part of this system either already exists, or is being developed, and if you look at the parts being developed and who is funding them, there is only one sensible way that they fit together; I call it the surveillance time machine, welcome to your future.

Slight tangent - there was a small kerfuffle recently when a guy found an GPS tracking device in his car. He posted pics asking what it was, then FBI agents then appeared and demanded the return of their property. People are upset because his car was bugged and his movements followed without any kind of warrant. Courts are split as to whether you even need a warrant to bug a car, because roads are public therefore you can't claim an expectation of privacy against government search, but the bug is more intrusive than just following a car.
Well, bugs like that will eventually be a thing of the past. They simply won't be needed. The new system will look like this:

High above a city, there will be an eye in the sky. Initially this might be an aeroplane, but that's a dumb way to do it. Eventually the task will be carried out by solar "stratellite" - a small unmanned electric blimp, solar powered, maintaining a GPS-fixed location and altitude. With no need to come down for fuel or food, the device could eventually become a permanent fixture in the sky.

The eye in the sky is like a digital camera, but its resolution is measured in gigapixels (current designs are just one or two GP), and it views at a lower frequency of light than the visible spectrum, thus it can more easily see through clouds and other weather systems. It takes a photo every couple of seconds.

So, quick summary:
1) A realtime google-earth view of the city (in monochrome, not colour), but otherwise about the same level of detail or better.
2) It is video, rather than a photo (low framerate)
3) The video is stored. You can thus rewind the entire activity of anyone and everyone in the entire city, fast forward, whatever. Thus it becomes a time machine.
4) This surveillance (of everyone, all the time) is already legal.

Intuitive-but-dumb objections include the idea that if you exit a building amongst a crowd of other people, there is no-way that you could be personally identified - you're just a few pixels, a little blob just like everyone else, so what's the point? But obviously, that's just failing to think it through - the Time Machine neatly solves the problem. Pick a random person of hundreds of anonymous people pouring out of a shopping mall on a Saturday afternoon. Want their ID? Fast-forward to where they go to their car. Rewind until that car arrives in that parking spot, follow that car backwards through time until it exits the driveway of the owner's home. Look up the address. Not only is the shopper identified, but it was a trivial task to do so. (Thus, computer automation will eventually do most or all of such identification).

Similar intuitive but not-thought-out objections are that people would get shuffled and lost as groups moved in and out of sight, or that clouds would block the view, or that storing so much data would be expensive, or that (hand-waving) because it just sounds too... science-fictiony!
(It's not science-fictionary, it's a very basic and obvious use for fairly mundane real-world technology.)

Once it is in place there are no need for GPS tracking devices because everyone has already been tracked, and when you want to investigate someone (say, to get the details of a random pretty girl you passed on your way to work, find out where and with whom she goes for fun, go to those places too, and just randomly happen to "meet" her, and just happen to share all her interests), you don't need to start following them, because you've already being following them for years, you can just rewind their life.

I expect the first of these devices will be deployed by the US military over cities in warzones or under tension, probably within 10 years, but since there is no legal reason to not set them up for domestic spying, and no shortage of police and agencies that will be crying out to set these up domestically, I'd expect to see them used domestically within 20 years.

And the best bit, of course, is that the omnipotence the time machines gives to its operators is illusionary - but many won't really be competent enough to act accordingly. Much like the prosecution of Iraq by going public with satellite images of Iraq's WMD, when there were none, if you meet a friend of a friend to drop off the cellphone they left at your place at the party the other night, that's going to make great drug-deal-going-down footage. Even as it helps solve some crimes, the time machine will exacerbate investigation incompetence and laziness, and vaporize privacy.

Even today, privacy is a myth, but it's a myth people still believe in, and something people will still fight for. When a generation grows up having never known that the world has ever been different, with no expectation of or experience with privacy, I think the concept will largely die out. Modern living will mean things like having electricity and internet and running water and other people being able to know what you do.

A lot of kids in America these days have their hobbies assigned to them according to what will help them get into a good college, so they're already living a partially fake life in order to have their lives look "right" on paper. A huge number of American's structure their activities so that their lives will look "right" to the surveillance apparatus of the almighty Credit Score. The internet is another one. As surveillance becomes more and more ubiquitous, a larger and larger chunk of the things we do will be the maintenance of a fake flaw-free life, done for show.

People having to put significant time and energy into this kind of non-productive keeping-up-appearances bullshit is the opposite of a vibrant and efficient society. It is the path to a burdened, wasteful, unhappy society. As these qualities accelerate within a society, it seems that either something has to give (like how in the 60's a rebellion started against the social constraints of the 50's), or else I guess the whole society slowly falls into decline.

I think the USA has plenty of other, more pressing reasons to slide into decline, so I'm not betting on a surprise comeback, but knowing how and why things are going to happen can at least allow me to be better situated for their effects.

Thu, May. 22nd, 2008, 10:31 am
oil and futurism

One of the useful things for me that some people do, is bring together disparate threads from somewhat unrelated and sometimes quite esoteric things and weave them into a picture that makes sense to others. Sometimes I try to do that too:

It looks like the penny is dropping regarding oil. I read the newspaper over lunch each day, and this is (among other things) my source of behind-the-times it's-finally-reached-mainstream-consciousness sensible conservative reliable viewpoint, to counterbalance my other sources that are expert-but-as-yet-widely-unknown views, or under-the-radar stuff, or bleeding-edge-of-tomorrow's-technology, and of course the wild-eyed fringe views, etc etc. If it's in the newspaper, it's not news so much as confirmation that the things those other voices said a long time ago were correct (or not). If it's in the newspaper, it's dead and buried and the smart money has already moved on.
But it's the mainstream money that makes and breaks things. Joe Average's money. So it matters when Joe Average becomes part of the trend.

Yesterday, the front page of the business section was reporting that the futures market has solidified around the price of oil not dropping (from the current $120/barrel or more) for at least eight years.
And that the dudes that predicted the rise in price to over $100/b, are now being taken very seriously when predicting $150/b within just a few months, and that $200/b is possible if there are unforeseen disruptions to supply. (For perspective - the price of oil when supply is quite adequate for demand, has been about $11/b.)

Global oil production peaked 3 years ago. Since then the decline has so far been gentle enough that it forms a plateau that makes it easy to be optimistic that production could rise again, if you don't look at the numbers too closely. The newspaper pretty much sunk this too:
- There are no producers able1 to offset Russia's ongoing post-peak decline.
- Global demand continues to rise, and the gap between supply and demand is continuing to widen.
- The rising price is failing to slack demand, because China, India (and others) are subsidising their domestic consumption, so people continue to buy oil without feeling any sting directly.
- If unrest in the Niger Delta and Iraq were solved, their production could be increased and go some way towards narrowing the gap. Good luck with that.
- Oil companies are pouring shockingly unprecedented billions into finding and pumping oil, and are getting shockingly unprecedented little oil for their trouble. (Ok, this one should go without saying, but apparently there are still people who don't know this).

1. "Or willing" you might try to add, if you're unduly optimistic :-)

For a long time, people have had ways to not assume that oil has not fundamentally changed, explaining away price rises by pointing to speculation and regional instability. But I'm guessing that these factors add about $10 a barrel each. [Edit: speculation is claimed by many to account for a lot more than this, which makes the following point less pointy, but still a point] A few months ago, when oil was $80/b, those factors accounted for, say $20/b, meaning that a theoretical price of oil was only $60, which is high, but not out of the ordinary. Not anything to worry about. Now that oil is pushing towards $130/b, that $20 is nothing - mentally ascribing $20 of the price to fluctuating conditions no-longer gets you anywhere - you're still left will oil more expensive than any time in history. It becomes much much harder to avoid the implication that the rising price of oil is real and is not coming from these other things that can be brushed off as temporary or incidental. Judging by media these last weeks, a gestalt change in thinking is in progress. Watching this happening through media and internet, it looks pretty similar to the way US public thinking started to change on climate change. Slow but inevitable.

Now, cutting away from the dead and buried of the newspaper and the simialr lagging of public perception and Joe Average, to the voices of the future. Here's something interesting: I was reading an article about some dude doing the business tour schtick touting a way to double the mileage of cars. Riiight. But listen up - his wild-eyed claims are that you can build cars that weigh much less than current cars, but are stronger and safer than current cars, and that it would cost less to build these superlight cars. Sounds like a dream right? What is standing in the way? Nothing less than the total re-tooling, from the ground up, of car manufacturing. Because this can only be achieved by abandoning steel and building cars from carbon fibre and modern composites. All those welding robots... useless. An entirely new production and molding infrastructure needed. New factories, new infrastructure. New workforce with new skills in new materials.
That's... a pretty big obstacle.
Five years ago, I would have filed this under "pie in the sky" - insurmountable. But today... what is a production line of such scale and sophistication that it can compare to auto-making?

Boeing, making 747 commercial aircraft.

And what has Boeing just done? The total re-tooling, from the ground up, of their manufacturing, abandoning aluminium and building the new generation of Dreamliner planes from carbon fibre and composites. All those riveters... useless.
Boeing has had a lot of difficulty doing this, but the point is, they had to do it, and they did it. And auto makers will have to do it too. But going by US automaking history, they probably won't do it even though they have to, and fail in the market as a direct result. Whoever makes and survives the transition will take more and more marketshare. Watch the progress of the Dreamliner, because it will make composites the future, not steel. Boeing is proving it, in the real world, today.

I know - talk of carbon fibre cars is hardly new, what is new is that I think we're at the point in time where the trap is sprung but public perception isn't there yet. It's in that sweet spot where there is sufficient certainty to put down money and win, but the newspapers and Joe Average haven't clued on yet, so you can get in first. :-)

Speaking of carbon fibre, new research suggests that carbon nanotubes are carcinogenic for the same reason that asbestos is, and may pose the same hazards. This is mostly just a problem during manufacture, disposal, and for damaged items, but still - something to think about for a future where everything is going to be built from it. Money and tech may be able to bypass the problem - the immune system can handle finer nanotubes without trouble. The finer ones are currently more expensive than the carcinogenic ones generally used today, but it's something.