Nuclear manoeuvres Robert Hickson Apr 13

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Is the world moving toward a nuclear power renaissance? The following chart from Technology Review shows that while traditional nuclear energy nations are scaling back, others are building nuclear power plants.

nuclear options

Japan is moving to reactivate nuclear plants , although the opposition political party wants to phase them out. China in particular is going nuclear gangbusters, to the concern of some who fear construction companies there are cutting corners and technical staff have insufficient training. Meanwhile in the US nuclear power plants aren’t commercially attractive, particularly as natural gas prices keep falling.

Public attitudes to nuclear power can be complex, even after Fukushima. A recent survey in the UK found roughly equal support and opposition. European countries have varying levels (Pdf) of public support (a new Eurobarometer survey on this issue may be out shortly). While in the US public support and opposition also vary over time.

A range of groups are promoting the development of smaller, safer cheaper fission reactors. For example, TerraPower (whose chairman is Bill Gates) and Giorgio Locatelli, who was interviewed by Bryan Crump on Radio NZ last week.

I’d be worried about a nuclear cargo cult mentaility developing if a small state can order up a small reactor, or have one offered to it, and all the control and oversight is by foreign companies or governments providing the reactor.

Kim Hill also talked nuclear power a few weeks ago with Robin Grimes, the British Foreign Office’s Chief Science Adviser.

The nuclear fusion field had a confidence boost earlier this year, with the National Ignition Facility in the US getting more power out than went in, albeit briefly.

A fascinating article in the New Yorker though notes the long road still ahead for achieving sustainable fusion power. Not only scientific, but bureaucratic and political challenges face the construction of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France. [If you can't read the full New Yorker article this short video explains the project].

Some from the nuclear fission fraternity argue that we don’t need fusion, since fission will provide the energy more quickly, and cheaply.

Supporters of low energy nuclear reactions may rejoice that ARPA-E  is eventually letting them submit proposals for research funding alongside other renewable energy projects.

What relevance are these developments to New Zealand? Its hard to imagine that we’ll build a nuclear reactor in the next few decades. We have plenty of other sources of energy available and, as Robin Grimes noted in his interview, we don’t have the high and consistent level of energy demands that justify nuclear power plants.

The main point is that, alongside the continued hunt for new oil and gas fields, it indicates little change in attitudes to power demands or economic development. While improvements in energy efficiencies are sometimes being made there are no fundamental shifts so far in how we live. Thats not too surprising since we tend to like what we have (or what others have) and hope technology will help meet our needs. Is changing the types of energy we use enough to have a more “sustainable” (define that how you wish) society?

Susan Krumdieck discussed this point on Kim Hill’s show on Saturday. She (Susan) belongs to the Global Association of Transition Engineering, where their focus is on frugal use of resources, not just replacement of fossil fuels with renewable ones.

We saw a similar lack of fundamental economic change following the global financial crisis. To many a reduced reliance on fossil fuels will probably be seen as positive, with differing views on whether nuclear energy should play a part, and whether more fundamental lifestyle changes are necessary.

Alexis Madrigal laments a lack of an energy revolution in the US. The Solutions project visualises what each American state could look like if it went 100% renewable (The recent Royal Society paper also envisages what a “greener ” NZ could look like).

WWF suggest that China could get to 90% renewable energy by 2050.

There certainly seems likely to be a much more diverse range of energy sources around the world over the next few decades. What is less certain is whether we’ll see a more substantial change in energy demand and how our communities and economies are run.

Fuel from water? Robert Hickson Apr 10


Will we shortly be able to stop drilling oil and get fuels straight from the water around us?

That’s been promoted for many decades now, but we may be getting closer.

The US Naval Research Lab announced this week that they have a way of converting carbon dioxide and hydrogen from seawater into hydrocarbon fuels. And used it to power a radio controlled airplane.

They do this using a catalytic converter. While they claim they could produce jet fuel at US$3-6 per gallon (its currently $2.90), commercial production is probably at least a decade away. What they don’t go into is the amount of energy needed for the conversion process.

Quite a few media reports have been inferring that the development will enable navies to do away with ship refuelling, though this isn’t what the Navy is saying, and it seems that they’ll focus first on providing jet fuel. So they may need their nuclear-powered carriers to run the process.

In a separate development, Stanford University has announced another catalytic process that converts carbon monoxide and water into ethanol with high efficiency. Although they first need to convert carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide through a separate process (preferably using more efficient processes than currently available).

So both interesting and potentially workable developments, but considerable more R&D and work required before we can hook our cars, boats and planes up to our water systems.


Canada’s emerging technologies metascan Robert Hickson Apr 09

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The Canadian Government’s just released a report on emerging technologies. It looks out over the next 15 years and focuses on digital technologies, biotechnologies, nanotechnologies and neuroscience technologies, which they consider have the potential for disruptive rather than incremental innovation. As you’d expect they consider biological enhancements, nanofactories, robots, wired-up everything.

There are no major surprises in their findings. Some of which include:

  • fewer carbon-based workers, but greater productivity
  • many areas of the economy will need to adapt as the technologies spread out across the sectors
  • the need to look at regulatory and risk management practices and requirements
  • the need to develop a better “innovation ecosystem” [the policy-speak du jour]

The report examines the impacts across a range of sectors – agriculture, manufacturing, services, energy, transportation, home, etc. The intention is to stimulate discussion, rather than predict.

The report is only 45 pages long and readable. It provides a good overview of some of the technologies and how they are or may be applied. They include a range of videos to illustrate some of the trends and developments. It would be nice to see New Zealand do something similar to help inform and stimulate discussion here.

The Ministry of Research, Science and Technology’s Biotechnologies to 2025 [Pdf], produced nearly a decade ago, was a great example of creative and  good quality futures analysis government agencies can (but rarely do) produce. It would be nice to refresh and broaden the scope of that report (which I had a small role in helping to develop) so the country as a whole can better consider what we may be facing.

The Royal Society’s recent green economy information paper is aimed at such informing, but it would be great to see the bigger picture and interconnections across the economy rather than just sector-specific analyses.

What I liked most about the Canadian report, and still need to delve into, are the visualisations they produced in conjunction with a company called Envisioning which estimate timeframes for some of the developments. Business Insider has made these zoomable, which is quite handy.

envisioning future tech

Envisioning’s composite visualisation of emerging technologies (



Influential futures reports from the past Robert Hickson Mar 18

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It was, apparently, “Future Day” on the first of March. I didn’t see that coming, and Google didn’t have a Doodle commemorating it so it can’t be that big a deal yet.

The School of International Futures celebrated it, after a fashion, by listing five important futures publications in the last half century.

Their criteria were

… these publications and the people involved have helped to shape strategic futures, to raise the profile and importance of strategic foresight and to embed futures into both policy and strategic planning.

Drum roll please …

The limits to growth (1972). This attempted to model future population growth and its effects. Its pessimistic scenarios resulted in extensive criticism, but some of it’s predictions don’t appear wide of the mark now.

Shell’s early scenarios (1973). When one of the world’s most profitable companies supports futures thinking for forty years there must be some value in it. Last year Shell published a brief retrospective on their scenarios.

Mont Fleur Scenarios (1992). These helped inform the post-apartheid government in South Africa. Adam Kahane, who facilitated the workshops, has given his impressions on their impact.

Kenya at the Crossroads Scenarios for Our Future (2000). I hadn’t heard of these, and aren’t sure what influence they actually had.

Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World (2008). From the US National Intelligence Council. They published their first global trend report in 1997 (looking out to 2010). But the 2025 report flagged a possible “multi-polar” world.


You could include the IPCC assessment reports. Irrespective of your opinion of them (or your position on climate change), they have been important for both governments and some in the private sector. However, I’d go for the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (2006) since coming from an influential economist it made many outside of the science and NGO communities really sit up and take notice.

The important thing about futures reports isn’t whether they are right, but whether they stimulate more critical thinking about the future, and they lead to change.

Mythical magic munitions Robert Hickson Mar 11

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There may be still a few discoveries and technologies out there, or yet to see the light of day, that will be “magic bullets” which will solve a pressing problem. As, for example, penicillin once did. In parts of Silicon Valley that hope probably still springs eternal, at least if you can develop an app from it.

Think of all the problems that would be “eliminated” if we could upload your mind to a robot, or take a pill to live longer.

But as we develop a better understanding of the complexities of our world, that seems like a mythical, more simpler place.

This is well illustrated in a poignant article in the New Yorker about children with complex life-threatening medical conditions [Subscription required to read whole article]. Jerome Groopman notes that as medicines get better in prolonging lives, there is a need to change how healthcare operates to meet the increasingly complex needs of the patients and their families.

The article describes the role that Pediatric Advanced Care Teams are now playing in helping coordinate healthcare for a patient, but also the way in which they help the family better navigate the health and social systems and assist the family in making difficult decisions about treatments.

The last point is the most important. It’s not just about coordinating and wrapping around services, but enabling the patient or family to have some control and choice. In many cases there isn’t a simple linear path from surgery/medicines to a fully healthy life.

Just providing more health-care robots and simple brain fitness apps won’t be enough to handle the potential senile tsunamis many developed countries may face as their post-retirement populations metastasize.

The bringing together of multidisciplinary teams of broader groups of interested parties to solve problems is becoming more common outside of medicine too. We are starting to see examples in water (or other resource) allocation, in some areas of social services, and energy supply. We’ll need many more of them.

They can appear slow, chaotic (at times), and the benefits can be slow to appear. Not a situation that sells itself to impatient policy makers of technocrats. But as the New Yorker article notes, the new approach can not only improve the quality of life of the patients and their families, but also provide big savings to the healthcare system by reducing readmissions and ineffective surgery or other treatments.

Deloitte is promoting a similar approach to government in their “GovCloud” report on the future of government work. Once many bureaucratic processes are automated you can, in Deloitte’s view, radically cut back the public service and have diverse teams of creative bureaucrats coalesce around particular policy problems, provide a solution, dissolve and reform into new teams for the next problem.

This is being done, at a small scale at least, in some places. Notably the UK’s “nudge” unit. [I don't think nudging is a panacea, and much still needs to be done to demonstrate long term effectiveness. Paul Walker earlier this week at The Dismal Science blog linked to a libertarian critique  about nudging]

While aspects of Deloitte’s proposal appeal, I can see it going badly wrong if you just bring in a bunch of general policy wonks and consultants who have little understanding of the particular issue, propose a simplistic solution, and then move on without any accountability. We’ve all seen that before.

But the notion that we need to approach issues and problems differently now is critical. Magical thinking shouldn’t continue when we don’t have magic bullets anymore.


Brain zapping Robert Hickson Mar 04

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It could be that the Tin foil hat brigade are right after all. Howard Hughes Medical Institute scientists have played around with fly mating behaviour by shooting a laser at their brain. This follows on from work implanting false memories in mice using the same technique – optogenetics.

source: wikimedia commons

source: wikimedia commons

Since optogenetics currently relies on genetically modifying the appropriate nerve cells, this isn’t a technique that is going to leave the lab anytime soon. But there is a lot of interest in developing clinical applications for humans.

In other brain + laser-related futuristic news, Michio Kaku, in his book The Future of the Mind, suggests that one day we’ll shoot our minds out into space with lasers. Not for the hell of it, but as a way of becoming immortal of course. All very Borgian.

Energy Darwinism Robert Hickson Feb 20


If fossil fuels are the figurative dinosaurs in the energy landscape, are renewables the agile rodents poised to take over the world?

That’s an on-going and often intense debate. Will new technologies enable the fossil fuel industry to adapt and provide us all the oil (and gas) that we could possibly ever need? Will renewable sources of energy evolve rapidly to be reliable enough and cost competitive (without subsidies) with fossil fuels (with their continued subsidies) in the short term?

BP’s latest energy outlook 2035 forecasts a rise of 41% in total energy consumption by 2035, but fossil fuels (notably gas) lumber on as the dominant energy source.  Renewables (excluding hydro-electric) may only represent 7% of total energy sources by then.

BP, in line with other energy forecasts, predict slower growth rates in energy use globally, and a decline in energy intensity (ie more bang from your barrel of oil, bottle of gas, or bucket of coal), particularly in developed countries. However, global carbon dioxide emissions may increase by 29% based on those energy projections.

Regardless of their views on whether the fossils or renewables will dominate the rest of this century,  most commentators note that the energy and electricity industries are in a state of transition.

Citigroup refer to the transformation of the energy industry as Energy Darwinism.

It’s not sudden extinction or survival of the fittest, but more about co-evolving. And adaptive radiation. Fossil fuel plants are adapting to become more flexible, and less required to provide most of the demand.

Solar technologies seem to have the most adaptive potential. They are developing the most rapidly, with the greatest efficiency gains and cost reductions in energy technologies. Solar technologies seem like the smart phones or flat screen TVs of today. If I was thinking about installing solar power, and could afford to wait, I’d hold off for a couple of years

A combination of lower energy demand, volatile fossil fuel prices, low carbon prices, and increasing renewable generation capacities in some European countries energy utility companies in Europe  (and in parts of the US) are struggling, and investment in fossil fuel plants is declining. One report  suggests that Europe will close down 30% of its fossil fuel energy capacity over the next few years.

The world’s largest solar thermal power plant has begun operating in California. But some think it may be an evolutionary dead end, with other less expensive solar technologies being economically “fitter”.

Germany and Hawaii are examples where there has been greater adoption of wind and solar energy. Some point to places like these as showing the way, whereas others suggest that government subsidies make these unrealistic models. Germans are becoming concerned over their high power prices (although this often has more to do with the price of natural gas and reduced coal generation than with subsidies for renewables).

In New Zealand while individuals have often been able to switch off from the national grid, it’s been harder for communities to establish their own energy independence so far

The transition isn’t just about the generating technologies, so policies and initiatives just focusing on supporting new renewable forms of energy aren’t sufficient. The distribution network needs to also change to cope with the different supply capabilities and ensure energy is delivered to where it needs to be when it needs to be. California and Texas provide good examples of how these can change

To continue over stretching the evolutionary metaphor, it’s also about the social and political environments. Public opposition to new energy generation and transmission lines can also hamper energy transitions

Energy policy is entwined with climate change and industrial/economic development policies, although they aren’t always considered together.

Ongoing debate about climate change policy in the EU is also creating uncertainty for energy and industrial policies. And in the US there is a push to develop energy policies relevant to this century.

Amory Lovins, from the Rocky Mountain Institute, encourages us to celebrate the disruptive energy technologies (at least the renewable ones) and seize the opportunity to transform energy systems.

Meanwhile, a report from the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, signals possible indirect adverse geopolitical effects from the US’s new found energy independence. These may include China and India competing in the Middle East for the oil and gas there, and greater instability in some of Europe’s neighbours if demand for their fossil fuels declines rapidly.

You never know what the consequences of evolution will be. That doesn’t mean avoid change, but it does mean we need to think broadly of all the things that need to be in place (or to be prepared for) to have the best chance of a liveable, affordable and desirable future.

Caveat artifex Robert Hickson Feb 09

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The title is my pig latin for let the worker beware.

In the US The Atlantic picked up on the US Bureau of Labor Statistic’s projections of the fastest growing jobs over the next decade. The latter conclude that the fastest growing jobs will be in healthcare, office administration, retail sales, and the food workers. These are driven by demographic changes and economic expectations.

US Bureau of Labor Statistic's job projections 2012-2022

US Bureau of Labor Statistic’s job projections 2012-2022

[Click on image for a larger view]

But The Atlantic notes that healthcare spending in the US is already growing more slowly than expected, which will affect the job projections if that trend continues. In a separate article they point out that the Bureau’s projections a decade ago were wide of the mark, so the results need to be viewed as indicative only

The projections, according to the Atlantic, also seem to take insufficient note of recent robotic and computational trends that could make some of the “fast growing” jobs obsolete for humans. They refer to the modelling by Benedikt & Osborne [Pdf] from the Oxford Martin School who predict retail, office, and service-related jobs have high probabilities of being automated “over the next decade or two.”

“How susceptible are jobs to automation?”. Benedikt & Osborne (2013)

These projections conform to other predictions of a hollowing out of the middle classes.

Benedikt & Osborne are uncertain of the timeframe for their automation impacts, so the Bureau of Labour Statistic’s projections for the next 10 years may not be that greatly influenced by them. And the former’s model may be just as fraught as the standard economic ones.

As I’ve noted previously, while some job types may be taken over by robots or computers, other types of work are usually created. The big issue is whether they’ll be meaningful jobs, and ones that pay reasonably well.

What about the future job market in New Zealand? The Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment did a 10 year employment outlook in 2012 . It doesn’t drill down as deep into job types as their US counterpart. They list the top 25 most rapidly growing jobs in five year blocks (2011 to 2016, and 2016 to 2021), so I’ve calculated the overall growth projections from 2011 to 2021 (Bubble size gives an indication of overall number of jobs in 2021).


Three main things to note. Firstly, many of the job types also fall into the potentially automatable class. If Xero’s business model succeeds, for instance, there will be much less demand for accountants. Similarly, if even more people shift to buying goods online.

Secondly, the health care sector is less a feature in the NZ projections.

Thirdly, the projected rates of growth for NZ are at least an order of magnitude less than in the US, so our economic growth is projected to be pedestrian by comparison.

I haven’t found an analysis of previous NZ projections versus actual employment, but my guess is that they are probably not that close. The dairy boom, and Christchurch earthquakes, for instance, were unlikely to be factored into them.

The Treasury has a paper comparing projected vs actual economic performance [Pdf]. They generally only look a couple of years ahead but even then the error rates increase the further out they project.

So don’t rely too much on government projections in times when significant change is going on.

What types of jobs will I be suggesting to my children? That will depend on their skills and interests of course. But ones that are likely to be challenging and interesting, and involve great interpersonal relations, judgement and/or creativity would be better bets.

Electronic bodies Robert Hickson Jan 30

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Why go through the pain and expense of getting neural implants if you just want to get cyber-wild for an evening. Katia Vega is developing make-up applications to enable your skin to “act as an interface”.

YouTube Preview Image

Better than glow sticks and those shoes that flash when you walk.

But she isn’t all frivolity, as this Wired article notes. She has helped a quadriplegic do some simple tasks for himself. You can find out more about Katia Vega’s projects at her Beauty Technology website.

Looking a little further into the future, the New Yorker had an excellent article last year on material scientist John Rogers and his research on creating integrated circuits that are much more suitable for implanting in or on the body. Some of his devices are already in clinical trials.

The Human Bionic Project, run out of MIT is cataloguing all the existing bionic parts, and are thinking about how to enable different bionic bits to communicate with each other. (If you have trouble connecting to the MIT site, as I did, and which doesn’t inspire confidence in their ability to achieve their goal, then jump over to the article at Co.exist).

Frank Swain considers some of the personal and ethical issues associated with being a “cyborg” – that is having hearing aids – in the BBC’s Beyond Human series. While such implantable devices may belong to you, you currently don’t have free reign over what you can do with them. If you have Google glasses and I have retinal implants do we both have to tell people we are recording them?

It seems that it will be a rapidly shifting landscape in both what we can put on and in our bodies, and what will be acceptable to do with these devices.



Fantasy Futures Feast Robert Hickson Jan 21

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In the spirit of summertime “light” content, where people imagine ideal dinner parties (or voyages to Mars), I’ve drawn up my own futures soiree. It’s not a gathering of all the great and good futurists to come up with a prediction of what the future loos like. Rather it’s a gathering of  knowledgeable and hopefully erudite folk from a range of fields who will help me explore, rather than predict, where we may be headed and what options for guidance may be available.

My first choices, in ascending order of birth are:

Leonardo da Vinci  (1452-1519). An obvious choice, but always helpful to have a genius polymath involved who can not only imagine but design the future.

Michel de Montaigne  (1533-1592). French essayist. A long time favourite of mine because of the insightfulness and clarity of his writing (if you get a good translation). Able to move easily from anecdote to deeper meaning, which is a critical skill in the futures space.

Edward Gibbon  (1737-1794). Historian, who wrote The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Someone with a long view of history and societies, which is also valuable when looking forward. (We’ll try and keep him off diatribes against religion).

Mary Warnock  (1924- ). Philosopher and ethicist. You can’t think seriously about the future without some awareness of philosophical and ethical issues. Baroness Warnock’s already tackled ethical issues associated with recent developments in treating human fertility.

Elinor Ostrom  (1933-2012). Political economist and Nobel laureate, who looked deeply at managing common resources. That’s definitely going to be an ongoing issue.

Joi Ito  (1966- ). Director of MIT’s famed Media Lab. Someone with a very good depth and breadth of knowledge about the cyber world and where it may lead, both academically and from a business perspective.

Charles Royal. Someone I actually know (from our time at the Ministry of Research, Science & Technology). Charles is a talented musician and academic, and has thought carefully about how Maori systems of knowledge (and other indigenous knowledge systems) can contribute to today’s and tomorrow’s world.

To round out the dinner, I’ll need a great host/hostess. While Kim Hill, Bryan Crump and Jim Mora from Radio NZ National may be interested, their experience lies more in one-on-one interviewing. But they’re welcome to pop in for coffee later.  I’ll see if Catherine de Vivonne, marquise de Rambouillet  (1588-1665), a famous salonnière, can make it to keep the discussions going in good humour.

Of course, there are many more people (both past and present) I’d like to have to dinner. The list above lacks sufficient diversity in gender, race, and experience but you need to keep the numbers down so everyone participates in the discussions. So I’d look on this as the first of several very interesting evenings. As well as well seasoned sages and creative types I’d want to have some of the talented next generation thinkers and doers from all over the planet be in on the meal and discussion.

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