Virtual Face Tattoos

El Salvador jailed 70,000 people, 1% of the 7 million population, and went from the top to the bottom of the murder league tables.

A somewhat unusual set of circumstances in El Salvador made this unthinkably complex task easier than it might have been in other places. Not least among these was the fact that, in some form of cognitive oversight or compulsion to confess, the majority of the worst criminals had conveniently tattooed their faces with gang declarations.

Unfortunately, in places where the ‘bad guys’ tend to look exactly like the good guys, things are more challenging.

This is not a new problem. Telling the ‘good guys’ from the ‘bad guys’ has always been tough, and people tend to clutch at any available heuristic. If there is even the slightest real or perceived correlation between naughty behaviour and outward phenotypic markers, society will hail it like an astrologer hails a grand alignment. This is why racism is so popular (if rarely effective); at least you can tell one race from another.

Let’s therefore assume that removing the 1%, like El Salvador just did, turns a Haiti-style hellscape into a tropical Switzerland—

The 1% of the population accountable for 63% of all violent crime convictions:

—how would repeat achieve this? Is there any technological solution? Some actually effective Sci-Fi version of racism that allows naughty individuals to be recognised and scooped up off the street?

I have an idea (a plot point in my new book). Population-wide AI monitoring, paired with some sort of AR labeling. This setup could inscribe a virtual face tattoo for the really bad guys.

The eyes are a window to the soul, a local AI (Security Sage) could pull your soul out through those windows and hang it in front of the shop for everybody on the street to see.

You’d get stopped and searched more than the lady who doesn’t have a virtual serif six six six on her forehead, but the cops don’t get access to your Security Sage. If they’ve got no evidence, you get to walk…


The good guys are not going to agree to something like this being applied to them, when the downside of totalitarian overreach is giving the lizard’s puppets even more control over our slaughter pens.  We, the good guys, will need to be reassured that our personal criminal histories will be kept safe.

This is the tricky bit.

You can’t trust the ‘Public Cloud’ for this kind of thing. If we have to keep a tally of all our dirty secrets, it has to be secure as hell! All our bad stuff fiendishly encrypted and only released to the authorities if they can demonstrate ‘just cause’…

Ah, but who decides what is ‘just cause’? The same AI that tagged you with your holographic tattoo. Your personal criminal history (and maybe the odd birthday, concert, and first day at school too) would be saved, tamper-proof, under the lock and key of a local software agent that understands the law and will only turn you in under understood and pre-agreed circumstances. The cops can complain as much as they want, but if they don’t have corroborating evidence, they can go punch a tree.

This would effective-racism against an extended-phenotype created by a publicly agreed set of rules designed to stigmatise and identify the naughty-people for removal or incarceration.

The parameters of the algorithm would be open-source and democratically agreed upon. They could be fine tuned according to the will of the people: a sliding scale from tracking everything including occasional jay-walking and library late-fees, giving a social-credit system where your personal low-score is written across your brow. Or, at the other extreme, maybe just a little dripping tear tattoo for each unprovoked aggravated homicide…

Public spirited implementations could forgive and allow the tatt to slowly fade or shift.
Fifteen years after your last crime spree, all that’s left is that tiny virtual satanic butterfly on your buttock.


New Talk – AI FOoM

I was recently asked to give a talk for the DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION & INNOVATION IN BFSI SUMMIT 2024 in Vienna.

I haven’t done one of these things since Covid, so it was useful to update my priors with regard to the future…
…which is bearing down on us like some laser-eyed, fusion-powered Behemoth!

In this talk, I focus on how science fiction can prepare us for AI FOoM! (Fast Onset of Machine intelligence). A scenario that a minority of AI researchers are concerned about, but which has non-trivial consequences for our species.


Exciting news, folks! My new book is taking shape! It should be out towards the end of this year (or possibly next depending on how distracted I am by the relentless march of craziness!)

One of the locations is a floating vacuum dirigible—SkyWhale. If you’ve read my previous books, you might recognise the concept. It was on the cover of book 3 but from the angle it’s form still fairly ambiguous.

(Cover by the amazing DoFresh)

As we spend so much time there in the new book,I decided to put some effort into designing the SkyWhale properly…

I got to thinking about the aerodynamics. I decided to make the tail like the wings of a glider (sailplane) with high wing-loading and low-drag. I added multiple sets of forward fin/flukes for maneuvering at low speeds. These flatten against the envelope when the vessel is cruising.



Assuming it’s built with super light materials and nothing inside, it almost looks plausible, right?

Original sketch: