Archive August 2011

Barriers to clean energies Robert Hickson Aug 31

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Clean energy technologies are being hailed by some as the sixth great technology revolution — an insurrection that will free us from the shackles of fossil fuels, and provide the staging ground for further economic growth without the nasty environmental and military consequences of an addiction to hydrocarbons. However, this revolution will play out over decades.

["Clean" is relative of course - reliance on digging rare earth elements out of the ground (or seabed) to build wind turbines or batteries isn't totally benign. And some, of course, object to the visual and auditory pollution of wind turbines]

 The philanthropic recently modelled the impact of clean energy innovation on the US economy out to 2050. They concluded that ‘aggressive energy innovation’ could both more than halve greenhouse gas emissions while enabling the economy to grow and unemployment to fall. The ‘aggressive energy innovation’ requires both technological breakthroughs and comprehensive federal clean energy policies.

 As Pew Charitable Trusts noted, the US while a hot bed of innovative research and development hasn’t got its act together (at a federal level at least) on policies that stimulate the adoption of clean energy initiatives, and so is not doing that well in the ‘clean energy race’. Countries such as China, Brazil, and western European states are doing much better if you look at the rate at which they are increasing the proportion of renewable energy generation. They are deploying tried and trusted existing technologies (wind, solar, etc).

 After the global financial crisis national stimulus packages also allocated big wads of money to clean energy research and development. Followers of cleantech will know that there is an amazing variety of approaches to creating biofuels, improving the efficiency of solar panels, building better batteries, developing fuel cells, designing smart power grids, enhancing energy efficiency and removing carbon from industrial waste streams.

 Which technological developments are going to power us in the future? That’s easy — the cheapest ones. The key bottleneck is not science but economics. The only successful developments will be those that are able to provide energy at the same or lower price as fossil fuels. This is a large challenge, made more difficult by volatile prices of the fossil fuels continually changing the target price. While oil may become scarcer, coal and natural gas will continue to be abundant and cheap.

 Many countries have been subsidising their renewable energy initiatives, but subsidies are being reduced. Governments, however, can’t step back and leave it to the market to decide the shape of our future energy systems. Incentives will be needed to build the new energy infrastructure (as they were for fossil fuels). The International Energy Agency estimated that global subsidies for fossil fuels were US$557 billion in 2008 while renewal fuel subsidies in 2009 were around US$57 billion.

 Another concern is that as the funding pulses from stimulus packages are coming to an end a lot of promising R&D won’t be able to get to a stage where the private sector steps in to commercialise it. While venture capitalists in the US are putting more money into clean tech, they are getting pickier about what they back – focussing on ventures that are likely to give a return more quickly. This means that newer start ups and more ambitious projects may find it harder to survive.

 China [PDF, 1 MB], and some other countries, are though retaining longer term support for renewable energy development. The US military is a fan of clean technologies and, as the biggest energy user in that country, able to have a substantial influence on developments. The revolution will happen, but the timing and form of it are uncertain.

 Given the uncertainty, what policies and strategies are going to be needed by governments, organisations and communities to transition as smoothly as possible away from fossil fuels? As M. King Hubbert (he of ‘peak oil’ fame) noted 40 years ago, cultural constraints are likely to be the most significant factor in the transition; can we break away from our short but dramatic history of exponential economic growth?

 Changing where and how we produce energy will have major social consequences. Transition towns are one example of local communities, with government assistance, that are already taking a different approach to energy generation and sustainable living. Planning for the rebuilding of Christchurch is considering how the role new forms of energy will shape the city. Plans for the future development of Auckland don’t seem to be giving this as much attention.


New Zealand’s Energy Strategies

Increasing our renewable energy supplies is recognised in the Strategies released this week. Rod Oram commented yesterday on Radio New Zealand National about his frustration with the government’s lack of ambition about our energy future. Many other comments and analyses have and will be forthcoming.

New Zealand is both a developer and an adopter of clean energy initiatives. I’ll end by suggesting that whatever revenues the government receives from new oil and gas drilling, a wise decision would be to use a significant proportion of it to help the country transition to clean energy. Part of this should include developing expertise in clean energy services that could be sold around the world (as Iceland did with geothermal power expertise decades ago). But policy as well as technological developments need to be ambitious.

Social disorder Robert Hickson Aug 19

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There has been much debate all over the place about the causes of the recent riots in the UK. Similar discussion and analyses occurred following the ‘Arab spring’ uprisings earlier in the year.

In this post I look at signals and trends that are being used to forecast social disorder in various parts of the world.

Conflicts over resources (food, water, oil, minerals) are regarded as underlying causes for some local or regional unrest. Poverty, corruption, and social inequality (among other issues) have been cited as factors in the Arab spring uprisings, as well as in the UK. One researcher considers that riots can develop and spread in ways similar to epidemics (and aspects of the spread of the uprisings in the Middle East did seem to have elements of a contagion).

However, riots and other forms of social upheaval rarely show simple cause and effect relationships. Analyses for the causes of such events are becoming more sophisticated (at least away from the popular media).

A recent paper by Marco Lagi et al notes that high food prices are an underlying cause for many riots, but by themselves aren’t the trigger. They predict, based on current trends, that late 2012 or early 2013 could be a period of very high food prices, and so have the potential for severe outbreaks of social disorder.

[For the record, and by-the-by, I don’t consider that this prediction supports the so-called Mayan end-of-the-world catastrophe! that some lost souls are proclaiming. I’ll be putting my money where my mouse is by taking advantage of the good current exchange rate and making long term subscriptions to my favourite overseas periodicals].

A less mathematical paper published earlier this year in the journal Foreign Affairs was called the Psychology of Food Riots. This also noted that high food prices by themselves don’t trigger riots. Rather, the authors considered that the perception of being cheated is usually the catalyst. Perception of inequality (rather than the actual degree of inequality) also seems to be an important trigger for other occurrences of unrest.

Another predictive model for increased levels of political violence has also been developed. This uses a range of variables and the model’s developers claim that it has successfully predicted unrest in a range of countries.

More rough and ready assessments of unrest and political stability are common. For example, The Economist’s Shoe-Thrower’s index of unrest (which they admit isn’t infallible) and political risk heat maps.

However, as a well-considered blog on food crises has noted, it is one thing to have a good set of indicators, but timely and effective responses to these are required to avert or minimise the crisis. Responses are often harder to get right than establishing the warning systems, as the recent conflicts in the UK and Middle East have shown.


Future prospects

Looking further ahead the UK’s Ministry of Defence’s 2010 Global Strategic Trends report considers that the world will be in a state of transition for the next few decades. The transition involves demographic, geopolitical, governance, economic, energy, technological and other societal changes. They (and other forecasters) see an increasingly complex world, with different countries facing different challenges and opportunities.

You could argue ‘hasn’t the world been transitioning since the industrial revolution, so is there anything different now?’ Key differences now are that the developed as well as developing countries are having to transition, and the increasingly connected (economically, politically, and electronically) world means that an event in one place can have a much greater extent than previously, and result in systemic failure. We can all think of examples of this.

Time will tell whether we are better able to spot and effectively respond to future events of a similar nature. I don’t have much confidence in that, based on what’s been going on in Europe and the US with respect to their financial crises. So, Ariadne expects lots of volatility over the coming decades.

One of the significant issues that the Global Strategic Trends report highlighted was the increasing urbanisation going on around the world and the potential for increased disruption of social disorder from this. The report notes the need to better understand the dynamics of urban societies to reduce the occurrence of social disorder.


What are the risks in New Zealand?

Will New Zealand descend into disorder if we fail to win the Rugby World cup yet again? Highly unlikely, even given the anger over the price of milk and Adidas jerseys. I don’t anticipate manning a barricade or helping myself to flat screen TV’s this year. Longer term, though, we shouldn’t be too complacent that we are immune from what has happened in the UK, or Tunisia.

Is New Zealand resilient enough to withstand crises that occur elsewhere or here? The New Zealand Institute has previously highlighted the mediocre to poor performance of New Zealand on a range of economic and social indicators. New Zealand’s social report generally shows stability or improving outcomes across a range of social well being indicators, but our rankings on some indicators (such as suicide, obesity, imprisonment rates and affordability of housing) aren’t something to be proud of.

The recent report on early childhood indicators from Every Child Counts also flags potential long term societal problems. How well will New Zealand be able to respond to volatile times in 20 years, if a significant part of the potential workforce is poorly educated, unhealthy or lacking a sense of social connection? The success with which we improve our social and economic performance over the next few years will determine how orderly our future society will be.

Moving away from the “God complex” – Tim Harford on TED Robert Hickson Aug 12


Following my previous post a colleague pointed me to Tim Harford’s talk on TED. Tim favours the trial and error approach over the “God complex” . The latter is where someone confidently proclaims they know how a complex system works, when in fact they don’t. This is similar to the fox and hedgehog analogy I wrote about. On a similar vein, good advice to foresight people from Paul Saffo [PDF]  is that if you forecast, do it often and be the first to correct your forecast.

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Fellow Sciblogger Shaun Hendy wrote more about Tim Harford in July in relation to how some of his ideas relate to improving innovation in New Zealand.

What foresight animal are you? Robert Hickson Aug 10


In workshops I’ve been involved in a warm up exercise is often to name an animal that symbolises what foresight or environmental scanning is. Common responses are giraffe, meerkat, dog and eagle (or vulture for those with more melancholic tendencies).

These animals evoke being vigilant or able to see further or more clearly. (Poor old Ariadne’s cousins rarely get mentioned.) However, this is only part of the skill set for being an effective ‘futurist’. You have to also make sense of what you are seeing. Other animals in the futurist’s zoo can symbolise this talent.

Kylie Sven Opossum [Facebook link — you may not be able to get to this at your day job] from the filmFantastic Mr Fox isn’t one of them. He is, though, a good illustration of responses not infrequently encountered in futures workshops.

Philip Tetlock (a psychologist not a futurist) proposed in 2005 that your future’s totem may be either a fox or a hedgehog.  This drew on the philosopher and essayist Isaiah Berlin’s resurrection of an ancient Greek observation that ‘the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’. Hedgehog thinkers fit information into their view of the world. Foxy futurists lack a single organising principle, but they do need to have some views or hypotheses to test the information against. I’m definitely a Berlinian fox.

Tetlock, and more recently Dan Gardner, consider foxes are better forecasters than hedgehogs. This is because foxes are not looking to fit information to one grand theory as a hedgehog would, but can change their ideas based on the information they gather. Hedgehogs make good pundits. They seek to minimise uncertainty and so can be reassuring (at least if your view of the world is similar to their’s), even if they aren’t accurate.

However, both Tetlock and Gardner conclude that predictions made by experts are usually no more accurate, and sometimes much less so, than a well read non-expert. Or a chimp throwing darts. This is because too much knowledge or information can make it easier to miss the significant details. As I noted in my first post, foresight isn’t just about making predictions, so Tetlock & Gardner’s analyses don’t damn all foresight activities.

A favourite futures paper of mine comes from the CIA. Chapter 5 of the Psychology of Intelligence Analysis (1999 — mysteriously no longer accessible on the CIA’s public website) gives examples of where having more information doesn’t improve accuracy of assessments, it just improves the confidence we have in our conclusions. As I commented in my iBrain post, analysing any and all information is unlikely to be helpful. Good foresight, like good science, usually requires you to have some hypotheses to enable you to determine what information is likely to be of most relevance.

One more critter that can be a useful metaphor for aspiring futurists; the fly. This covers the third aspect of futures methodology — action. The fly doesn’t wait for the brain to form a unified image from the many facets of its eye before responding. If a few facets detect something rapidly approaching the fly will usually take immediate evasive action rather than wait for more information to confirm the object is a rolled up newspaper. I’ll write more about what has resulted from foresight activities in a later posting.

Additional reading

Ronald Bailey has a short synopsis of Dan Gardner’s book Future Babble in the July issue of Reason.

A 2005 article in the New Yorker discusses Philip Tetlock’s study of expert political judgement.

The iBrain? Robert Hickson Aug 05


 [Long post alert — I want to keep them short and pithy, but the brain deserves a lot of attention, and I’m new to this blogging gig.

Synopsis for time limited  readers - scientists want to simulate the workings of a human brain in the next 10 years. Probably won't do it. But be prepared for a range of interesting brain treatments, engineering projects and widgets]

Scientists and engineers are getting more ambitious in the complex systems that they model. Earthquakes, epidemics, flight dynamics of new aircraft, and climate are routinely simulated.

 So too are some human organs — heart, lung, and the muscular system. Take a look at the exciting research and applications in this field coming out of the University of Auckland’s Bioengineering Institute.

 Now a much more ambitious biological simulation is planned. The Human Brain Project. This is a research programme that may potentially get up to €1 billion from the EU’s Futures and Emerging Technologies (FET) Flagship scheme. The project hasn’t yet been awarded this funding, but if it does it will attempt to build computer models of complete brains for a range of animals (rat, cat, and monkey) before tackling the human brain. The human model will require 500 petabytes of data (about 200 times the amount of data that Google currently holds) and computational power that is not yet available.

 The following video is of one of the research leaders, Henry Markram, talking  in 2009 about the project.

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 A competing group in the US, funded partly by the Pentagon, is also attempting to simulate a human brain. Both teams have previously modeled parts of brains, and hope full brain simulations can be achieved in the next 10 years. Independently, the enthusiastic techno-futurist Ray Kurzweil has predicted that the brain will be ‘reverse engineered’ by 2030.

 There is very strong interest from the medical, military and ICT sectors in applying neuroscience research to maintain mental well being, improve fighting capabilities, and create smarter gadgets and games. Advocates for the simulation projects claim the modelling will speed up our understanding of brain function, and hence development of treatments and other applications.

With demographic profiles of many western countries becoming increasingly older there are concerns that there will be a rise in neurological diseases and disorders so neuroscience is attracting more funding. The justice system is also becoming increasingly interested in how it can apply findings from neuroscience in judicial processes. Developments in neuroscience are already having implications for how we teach and learn.

 Understanding how the human brain works is perhaps the biggest scientific challenges around. Simulating a human brain involves modeling 10 billion or more neurons, each with a thousand or more connections (called synapses) to other neurons. (I’m vague here because different sources come up with different numbers.) The brain also has a range of other cells too, but the neurons are where most of the action is. At the end of this post are some links providing an overview of the human brain and some great videos of leading neuroscientists talking about the brain.

 Thanks to new tools and techniques the amount of data being collected about brain structure and function is growing at a staggering rate. The simulation projects want to pull all this information together to improve our understanding. However, as leading neuroscientist Steven Rose has noted  brain research is data rich but theory poor.

So, just because we have a lot of data doesn’t mean we can easily make sense of it. The Human Brain Project seems to be a muscular example of what Wired magazine enthusiastically proclaimed as ‘the end of theory’ — a view that with enough data the ‘truth’ will inevitably emerge without the need to specify hypotheses or theories. A modern variant of the old adage that monkeys well supplied with typewriters and time will eventually produce great literature.

 A range of neuroscientists are skeptical of the ambitious timelines for the simulations and what they will actually be able to achieve. However, they don’t generally dispute that such work will lead to important insights (as yet unknown), even if they note that the money could be better spent on other areas of brain research.

 Each of our brains is wired differently, changes over time and has unique sets of memories and thought processes. So what really could be simulated? Rather than be able to run a simulation of our own personal brain anytime soon, it is more likely that the brain simulation projects will simulate a minimal mind. Something perhaps like this guy’s

Homer's brain

None-the-less, the simulations will  help develop a better understanding of what is really going on in our minds.

One of the more interesting questions will be whether a simulated human brain demonstrates consciousness. If it does, would it be ethical to then turn it off? This seems unlikely given current understanding. John Searle’s Chinese Room argument contends that programs can’t provide computers with understanding or what we consider to be a mind. 

 If a brain can be simulated the next obvious step would be to link all these body organs together to simulate a whole human. In the coming decades may you then be able to send your simulated body to Appl-oogle’s iPersonâ„¢ 3D printing service and be ready to plug and play?

 Whole brain simulations aren’t necessary to get down and dirty with engineering the brain. Researchers are already building bits of brains in the real world – neuronal circuits are being built on chips and with nanotubes.

 Our brains are also already starting to be tinkered with and linked up with computers. These developments are likely to attract increasing ethical, social, and commercial attention over the next few years. Chips are being developed to implant into the brain to repair or enhance mental functions. Unsurprisingly, this is opening up some interesting ethical discussions. Other types of brain-computer interfaces are emerging, with some already commercially available.

 Does this mean that Kurzweil’s singularity between man and machine is as close as he claims? No. As with many areas of science, the emerging developments will highlight how little we know about how the brain and mind work.  

But it seems likely that we’ll be getting considerably more sophisticated diagnostic tools and treatments for neurological disorders over the coming years, as well as more interesting ways to connect with electronic devices. 

Of course, sci-fi fans know that messing around with our brains (or those of close relatives) often ends in tears. What we shouldn’t forget is that the brain isn’t simply a computational device. Social sciences will need to keep pace with neuroscience, and vice versa. 

Further reading: Cerebral fodder of the mind

 See how the brain works in this video or this slide show. Some of the mysteries of the brain are summarized in this article.  

Steven Rose provided a good overview on Future Directions for Neuroscience in 2007 for the MoRST Futurewatch programme. Several New Zealand researchers were commissioned to provide commentaries on his paper. Steven Price’s paper imagining the use of neuroscience in the judicial system is particularly good.

 Bradley Voytek’s Oscillatory Thoughts blog provides one neuroscientist’s take on the best neuroscience videos on TED. For radio listeners, Vilavanur Ramachandran’s 2003 BBC Reith Lectures on ‘The emerging mind’ are still great listening.

Welcome to my world wide futures web Robert Hickson Aug 02


These blog postings will be on the theme of looking to the future — foresighting — particularly in relation to science and technologies. But not exclusively; I’ll also be examining social, environmental, economic and political trends and developments around the world as my fancy and browser take me. I’m on the look out for interesting developments, significant trends and influencers or drivers of change and considering the ‘So what?’ questions these raise, particularly for New Zealand.

I’ll be taking a critical look at emerging science and technology issues, and will peel back the hype as much as I’m able:

Gartner Hype Cycle

The Gartner Hype Cycle

So I’ll give my view on where I think some of the things I discuss may fall in the hype cycle.

I’ve called this Blog Ariadne. Not because I will be leading you through the labyrinth to the future. My postings are not about predicting what will happen, good quality crystal balls being hard to come by. Rather, they will be about identifying what Shell’s futures team calls ‘signals’ and ‘signposts’.

Like a spider waiting on its web I’ll be plucking at what hits my threads and determining whether it is delectable, an insubstantial gnat of little interest, or something just too tricky to handle safely on my own. My approach, at least initially, will follow on from the former Ministry of Research, Science and Technology’s Futurewatch programme, which I had the privilege to lead over the last few years.

My web is a haphazard affair, and most of what I’ll be writing about I won’t have any deep or special knowledge about. I’m after the bigger picture, so I want to stimulate you, dear Reader, to contribute your observations and insights. That way we can get a better grasp on what is coming our way and what we may want to do about it.

Where to start? The slowly plateau-ing world population, the future of food and farming, or the changing geopolitical situation? Let’s take something simpler. My next post is on creating a virtual human brain.

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