Archive 2012

A fictional timeline of the future Robert Hickson Nov 28

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In an earlier post I noted how optimistic some early 19th Century visions of the future were. I wondered then whether we are getting more pessimistic. Now there is some real data to play with. Brain Pickings has published an infographic from Giorgia Lupi called A visual timeline of the future based on famous fiction.


The figure characterises stories as having an overall positive, negative or neutral perspective about the time in which they are set, and tags the stories theme as being primarily about the environment, science, technology, society, travel/adventure or politics. I don’t know what criteria they used to decide what was positive or negative, but I’ll take that as face value. Sixty two stories (novels, short stories, and comics) are covered, so it isn’t a comprehensive review. Some of the most prolific authors (such as Issac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein) only have a couple of stories in the graphic, and some well know authors are absent (George Orwell, Ursula Le Guin).  The analysis is also skewed to having a relatively large proportion of the stories being published in the last two decades.


Stories by decade

But what the hell, you can still extract superficial impressions. (And apologies for he graphs being on the small size, there is no goldilocks zone for image size in Word Press).

There are three times more “negative” (29) views of the future than “positive” (10), with the neutral stories (23) sitting in between them. The 2000′s seem a pretty glum time to be writing about the future based on this sample, while the 1950′s produced a cheerier ouevre. But overall, you can’t claim that science fiction has taken a more, or less, positive trajectory over the past 60 years.



Positivity and negativity over the decades


Stories focused on the environment and society in the future tend to be more negative, while ones about travel to other planets have a more even handed perspective. The degree of social dystopia isn’t surprising, but if you just watch sci fi movies you may be surprised at the number of less negative stories about the future environment (and science & technology).

Stories by tone and theme


As a posting by David Levine noted a couple of years ago, science fiction tends to mirror recent social issues, and they are mostly hopeless at predicting what will happen.

The Challenge of Science Challenges Robert Hickson Nov 12


Its great to see the government reaching out to the country to get feedback on what the big challenges facing NZ are, and the role that science can play in helping solve these. However, I’m dissatisfied with the possible challenges that they have put up on the website for two reasons. Firstly, many of these seem to be some of the Transformational Research, Science & Technology topics identified by MoRST (one of the grandparents of the Science & Innovation group in MBIE) several years ago. Nothing wrong with that, it was good work. But not a lot of additional thinking about these seems to have gone on since then.

The more unsatisfactory aspect is that these potential challenges cover much of what is already funded under existing schemes – more of the same rather than something novel. Yes, they are examples only, and the Cabinet Paper does refer to the use of “straw men” in the public consultation. But I’d expect more effort to help the public consider what a good science challenge is or what some important specific issues are, rather than just provide examples of a range of research that is currently being undertaken. Who wouldn’t want to support developing cures for cancer, or better pest control? What makes a good challenge and why, and what are the criteria being used to decide? A bit more information please. Maybe the TV advertising will tease this out, I hope so.

On the more positive side, the intent is to get more government agencies aligning policies and other efforts behind the challenges.

I have difficulty is viewing what is currently available as challenges or even “science project” because they lack specificity and measurable outcomes. Minister Joyce in the Cabinet Paper notes that the intention is rather to develop a scheme similar to CSIRO’s National Research Flagships, and that more of government funding will migrate to the selected challenge areas in the longer term. For me a “Challenge” has more the flavour and intent of the DARPA,  Grand Challenges in Global Health and Research UK challenge initiatives, where quite specific problems are being addressed and there are specific milestones and indicators of success along the way.

The Cabinet Paper notes the national science challenges are “aspirational”, so I see the scheme as more PR (not a bad thing) than focussing on some significant and hard specific problems facing NZ. However, time will tell. The process is to take the public responses and attempt to combine them with internal Ministry thinking based on sector consultation and a “Peak panel workshop” to identify the final set of challenges.

I would have preferred that they pick three challenges rather than 10, so that each one has a decent amount of money behind it. Money though isn’t the only “challenge”. Even with recent structural and funding changes, getting some institutions (as distinct from individual researchers) to collaborate nicely rather than compete will take some time (and a new generation of administrators).

It is fortuitous that a recent issue of Technology Review looks at challenges and asks “Why we can’t solve big problems“. The conclusion in the article is that solutions to technological problems require three factors:

  • The public and politicians must care about the problem;
  • There is institutional support for the solution (eg NASA and others supported going to the moon); and
  • The problem is a technological and one that we understand (the latter is an acknowledgement that we don’t yet know enough about, for example, some diseases to consider what an effective technological solution could be).

The DARPA and Global Health challenges tend to operate in this space. The National Science Challenges perhaps won’t meet all these criteria, particularly when it comes to the third bullet point. Reducing obesity or child poverty can have little to do with technological solutions. Improving environmental health may have a technological component, but societal and policy changes will also be necessary.

That isn’t a problem for the National Science Challenges because the initiative is framed as science rather than technological challenges. But the government (and the lucky “winners”) will need to be careful in explaining exactly what they are attempting to achieve to avoid getting a backlash in 4 years or so when the public asks “Has that challenge been solved?”

The European Commission has published a relevant report about Grand Challenges [PDF], noting the preference for the USA to go for technological or industrial challenges while Europe has focussed more on scientific challenges, and some Asian countries are trying to cover the spectrum. The report warns against attempting to integrate or closely align research challenges with innovation ones (ie where the goal is to take an idea or technology through to commercial success). This is because this seldom works where the government doesn’t have a strong influence over industrial decision making. Grand challenges also do better when they have some independence from government, and that the organisation managing the challenges see themselves as “change agents” rather than funding bodies.

So we aren’t going down the Grand Challenges path. But there are some opportunities to stimulate new research and encourage public interest and engagement. I’ll be putting a lot of thought into my proposals for good challenges.

A big data approach to learning? Robert Hickson Oct 29

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Ericsson is promoting a “big data” approach to education with its Future of learning video  and report [PDF]. They have a vested interested in promoting mobile-enabled learning, but there are  interesting concepts in their report.  They highlight how analytics can be used to tailor learning for each pupil (or staff member), drawing on adaptive learning platforms developed by firms such as Knewton, and the on-line teaching resources being provided by the likes of the Khan Academy and iTunes U.

Firms selling adaptive learning programmes report very good learning improvement, but they also don’t appear to be able to assess long form answers or creativity well. One blog post also notes that such approaches focus on developing tools to improve passing existing tests. No doubt technologies will improve, but it would be wrong to think that technology will single handedly create a bright new learning future. Data and analytics help, but the fundamentals of the education system, not just the tools, also require refinement.

One of the commentators in the video gets too carried away by declaring “knowing something is probably an obsolete idea”. Sure the current education system may not be well aligned with today’s employment needs. But finding out stuff when you need to know it is a purely utilitarian view of knowledge, and seems to leach out the creativity that education commentators like Ken Robinson identify as being what is lacking in the current system.

Dale Stevens was interviewed on Nine to Noon, and he makes some good points about how US schools at least are under performing.  His book Hacking your education is soon to be published, and he founded UnCollege. He is someone who consciously dropped out of the American school system and taught himself – unschooled rather than home schooled – because he found the system didn’t meet his learning style or needs.

Dropping out of the system can work for a small well motivated and affluent minority. But the future of learning and society would be better served by changing the system rather than making it easier to opt out. As NZ’s Secretary of Education rightfully indicated, we should have high expectations that the school system works well for all.

How we learn is changing. Better technology has a place, but so too do people with a passion and skill to teach. We are inspired more by people than technology, and that seems to be the key to learning.




Future Postcards From The Past Robert Hickson Oct 17

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The Singularity Hub shows some 19th Century French Postcards (relax/sorry, nothing risqué) that depicted life in the year 2000. I’ve seen a couple of these previously (the blog site Paleofuture posted a few of them several years ago), but Singularity Hub shows a more extensive set, along with comments about how accurate some of them seem to have been. Robotic machines feature frequently.

The postcards were created after, and presumably inspired by, some of Jules Verne’s stories. The cards (originally 50 in total) weren’t apparently distributed – they were intended to be included as inserts in either some toys or cigarette packets, according to Isaac Asimov who rediscovered them.

One of the striking things about the postcards (and other attempts at sketching the future) is not the accuracy (or lack thereof) of the predictions, but how the environment and clothing in the pictures usually remains unchanged. So not a fancy Roomba-like vacuum cleaner, just a semi- autonomous good old fashioned scrubbing brush (wireless not yet invented). And 19th Century clothing and parquet flooring.

Jean-Marc Côté’s vision of the year 2000

That illustrates some of the traps in foresighting – extrapolating from the current situation, and focussing on the technology rather than also considering how the environment in which it will sit will also change.

The postcard of the school of the future is also a delight – not quite what Google has in mind, I hope, for digitising books. Or how National Standards will play out.


Most of the postcards appear optimistic about the future. Not unsurprising, given Jules Verne’s techno-enthusiasm. These days popular culture (or at least things that end up in the cinema) tends to have a more pessimistic future outlook. Paleofuture also shows how some US children in 1976 imagined what 2076 would be like.

If my drawing was any good, I’d think about doing some postcards showing “solutions” for the National Science Challenges. Maybe some schools, and others, may like to give that a go to help inspire creativity in framing what the biggest issues facing NZ are and potential ways of overcoming them.

007 Billion – Crowdsourcing Intel Robert Hickson Oct 11


A few years ago DARPA’s little sibling IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity) sought to improve the forecasting of future events through crowdsourcing. It established the Aggregative Contingent Estimation Program to “improve accuracy, precision and timeliness of forecasts for a broad range of events”. [Crowdsourcing refers to tapping into the insights of any and everyone with an interest to solve a problem, or tapping into their wallets to fund projects as Siouxsie has blogged about here at Sciblogs]

Following an earlier trial this program has developed into the Global Crowd Intelligence website (run by Applied Research Associates Inc., which has the scent of “Universal  Exports” that a certain Mr Bond allegedly worked for). Here crowdsourcing is combined with “gamification” (see my earlier blog posting on this). You get to select missions (be it predicting the likelihood of a future conflict, when the iPad mini will be launched, or whether Kim Kardashian’s divorce will be finalised before December).

An article on the BBC’s website advises that “Forecast topics are not related to actual intelligence operations.”

Should you choose to accept them, the more missions you take on the more experience you accrue, the better your reputation becomes and the quicker you advance on from being a humble analyst to something perhaps more suave and sophisticated.

The BBC report notes that earlier experiments indicated an 25% improvement in predictions compared to a non-crowd sourced control group. Not spectacular, but progress, which I’m sure IARPA will be seeking to improve upon. I’d be interested in what were their stunning failures as well as the successes. I’m not sure if the latest trial has a control. What would be good to see would be to pit crowdsourcing against data mining and experienced intelligence operatives for some scenarios to see which may be better and under what circumstances. A few sensible and knowledgeable heads may be more prescient than wishful or ill informed thinking from a host of others.

Crowdsourcing predictions about defined events or scenarios is becoming common – see NZ’s iPredict. [The just announced proposal to trial a system to track the most vulnerable children isn't crowdsourcing, but it has elements of it]. Success varies, and like fortune tellers, will often be influenced by how precise the scenario is worded. One problem with scenarios is that if you are just fixed on predicting their likelihood you may miss other things going on. I’m sure those smart folk at the CIA, MI6, and our own GCSB & SIS will have that covered though. Don’t you think?

Another issue is the signal to noise ratio you get when gathering lots of data. An earlier crowdsourcing challenge run by DARPA – to find a set of red balloons [PDF] scattered across America – illustrated how some strategies work better than others, and that a lot of effort is required to be able to verify or discount some of the incoming information. The latest project is designed to be able to detect rogue elements attempting to distort the outcomes.

I expect IARPA will learn most about what types of scenarios are more or less successful at predicting via crowdsourcing, and they’ll get some useful insights in how to analyse information more effectively. Whether we could all be part of the GCSB in the future seems doubtful.


The shift toward corporate farming Robert Hickson Oct 11

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A quick follow up to my last post. Kathryn Ryan had an interesting interview with Hamish Gow this morning. He is the Director of the Centre for Agribusiness Policy & Strategy at Massey University. Hamish suggests that greater attention needs to be paid to the marketing of food products in other countries to help gain access to new markets and have more control over value. He is of the opinion that current marketing strategies have considerable room for improvement. Currently there is more focus on processing.

He also notes the changing capability requirements for farmers – advocating for greater international experience for young graduates before they return to help run corporate farms. There are increasing numbers of students enrolling in agri-economics, which is encouraging. Farming syndicates are becoming more common – see MyFarm.

Hamish also talks about his involvement in helping improve food safety and small scale farming in developing countries.

You can listen to the interview here - Nine To Noon interview with Hamish Gow


The Future by Airbus Robert Hickson Sep 27

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I’ve been looking at the latest instalment of The Future by Airbus and considering how it compares to the way some New Zealand sectors are looking toward the future. Their latest work is centred on “smarter skies”, and they look at 5 concepts associated with reducing fuel and energy emissions. Their horizon is 2050.

Airbus’ approach is less about predicting what will come to pass and more about generating ideas about a possible future – based on surveying passengers as well as considering engineering and design possibilities. They have also produced a fancy sound and light show to launch it, but that is more style than substance.

The New Zealand approach is, crudely, less about ideas and imagined futures and more to do with how we can sell more (valuable) stuff in a more environmentally sustainable way. Noble goals to be sure, but not that inspiring. And as the Riddet Institute’s “Call to Arms” report notes (echoing Sir Paul Callaghan), we can be good at producing such reports but not acting on them.

New Zealand strategic time horizons are usually only 10 to 15 years. Examples are Fonterra’s strategy, the Strategy for New Zealand Dairy Farming, the Riddet Institute’s Agri-Food Strategy, and the Forest Wood Strategic Action Plan. However, Victoria University has done work on looking at tourism in 2050, and the Auckland Plan looks out 30 years. On the other hand MFAT’s India and China strategies have a pitiful 3 to 4 year horizon.

I like Airbus’ approach, particularly their engaging with future travellers and young engineering graduates. That brings in fresh ideas and provides more interest and vibrancy than a dry strategic plan developed by a small group. Most of the NZ primary production strategies note the problem of attracting skilled workers to farming but struggle to find ways of how to solve it.

A key limitation I see in the farming and food strategies is their focus on products. They give less attention to the farming and post-harvest systems that sit around the product pipelines. These systems will change quite significantly over the coming decades, due to:

  • More expensive and/or volatile oil prices
  • Climate change
  • An increasing focus on sustainable production practices
  • Increasing competition from overseas producers
  • Demographic changes – fewer young folk are going into farming
  • Changing farm ownership patterns – farm sizes are tending to increase and more are likely to be run by corporations
  • Increasing technological precision, resulting in greater tailoring of plant and animal traits, feeding and fertilizer regimes, and control of the farm environment and the processing chains.
  • Increased integration of agricultural and industrial systems (to produce food, fibres, fuels and other materials)

What “smarter farming” concepts and  innovations will be important for how New Zealand farms? NZ’s future in agriculture may have more to do with how we farm rather than what we produce. Agility and diversity rather than large scale monoculture and a limited product range is what we need to think more about. And farming system expertise is exportable and profitable knowledge.

Here’s my starter list:

  1. Profit in diversity – back to the future with less specialised farms reliant on a single pasture type and single farming style. More integrated farms with various beasts and crops to spread the risks and develop new production opportunities.
  2. Low input farming – smarter use of water, fertilisers and pesticides through sensors, modelling and automation to reduce operating costs and adverse environmental impacts (we are already on the way to this, but there’s a long way to go).
  3. Data intensive farming – mining and analysing individual animal performance & welfare data, environmental conditions, nutrient loads, plant growth rates, and market trends to optimise and anticipate the next seasons farming plan.
  4. Integrated energy, water and waste management systems – farms that power and recycle themselves.
  5. Eco-logic farming – greater use of “terraforming” farms (ie changing the landscape) to enhance production and sustainability; including use of wetlands and  native plants to enhance biodiversity and better manage water and wastes.
  6. “Just in time” production – more flexible production & processing systems that respond quickly to market demands. For example, matching beef & lamb grazing to particular pasture/crops to provide meat with particular flavour, texture or nutrient characteristics.


Finding GeMO Robert Hickson Sep 07

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Some of the keynote speakers at the recent Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference brought to mind the scene in Finding Nemo of the three sharks grinning at Marlin and Dory. Not, I hasten to add, because I view Monsanto, Du Pont, et al., as sharks out to gobble us, or NZ’s agriculture up. Or that I view GMOs as dangerous beasts.

Rather because after over a decade of contentious argument here about the promise and perils of genetic modification in agriculture not much seems to have been changed in the approach. The messenger can be more important than the message. Rather than big corporations, its the little guys and gals that people often want to hear from. So a lost opportunity to present a point of view that doesn’t play to stereotypes.

The protests against GMO trials in the UK earlier this year didn’t gain traction because of how the scientists involved made efforts to explain their research to the public. NZ scientists are doing this here too, but it is a hard and thankless task.

I’m not going to discuss here the pros and cons of GMOs in food. It is still a dynamic situation internationally, with Europe seeming to become more receptive at the government level, while India is going the other way and citizen referenda in the US are pushing for labelling.

Genetic modification is progressing along other fields. The first drug produced from GM plants (or rather carrot cells) has been approved for use. It is being considered as a means to control malaria and is already being deployed to control west nile virus.

Gene therapy has had success in treating hemophilia in a trial and another  treatment for a rare disease is close to being approved in Europe. There is speculation about use of “gene doping” in sport now or in the future.

Synthetic biology is developing rapidly, moving on from just producing fuels to other more valuable chemicals. The US military is a big supporter of synthetic biology, funding programs to develop fuels, medicines and other things.  University teams are also increasingly sophisticated in using synthetic biology to create solutions to a range of challenges. Unsurprisingly, some groups are concerned about the use of synthetic biology and are calling for a moratorium.

So gene technologies are progressing on many fronts. Whether NZ will use it for food production in the short to medium term is uncertain. An important determinant will be the attitudes of the overseas markets our foods go to, and they remain cautious. Another critical factor will be the value proposition for genetic modification – will its use add substantial value (economic or otherwise) to what we produce? It seems more likely other types of genetic modification may be used here first. It will be interesting to see what the Minister for the Environment decides about the current regulatory system.  [Disclosure: I contributed to one of the reports MfE commissioned].


A Futures Periodic Table Robert Hickson Jun 15


I’ve been playing around with a graphic to make it easier to keep track of important trends and drivers influencing the future. This Table of Elements is what I have come up with.  It arranges the elements into the basic Futures Framework of Social, Technological, Political, Economic and Environmental trends (or other drivers/influencers of change).

I have loaded a PowerPoint presentation of it on SlideShare – A Futures Periodic Table – which gives more explanation of what each element is. I took my inspiration from the Periodic Table of Meat.

You may quibble that there are too few futures elements. But that’s the point. It is easy to get confused when you have lots of trends to contend with. So I have tried to keep it at a high level. And I have pandered to the geeks with a special “Lanthanide”and “Actinide”  science & technology series of elements  later in  the slide presentation. Yes, I have been somewhat arbitrary in what I have included.

Combine the elements (there are no rules about what can bond with what) to see if that helps consider future possibilities. Don’t forget about the Black Swans (or wild cards). Have a look, and let me know how I can improve it.

A Futures Periodic Table

Culture change Robert Hickson May 15

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Bryan Walker recently wrote on his Hot Topic blog about the Club of Rome’s outlook to 2052. Its a bleak assessment (for western countries at least) if political and economic governance doesn’t shift to a longer term perspective. An analysis in 2008 of the earlier Club of Rome report Limits to Growth (1972) indicated that the steady state scenario it described has largely turned out as predicted [PDF]. Another report also concluded that the 1972 report was admirably prescient.   However, the original report was derided or widely ignored, except for environmentalists who agreed with the premise.

Will the latest report be as accurate and, more importantly, fare any better? Given that a broader range of people, including well respected economists and business leaders, who agree current economic trajectories aren’t sustainable then it probably has a better chance. But it is one thing to agree about projections and another to agree about solutions.

Some think that more scare mongering will help drive change. I don’t think so. For most people if its too scary and too hard to make meaningful change, then fatalism can set in. Doomsday scenarios attract plenty of media attention, but don’t do much to stimulate political action if there isn’t a quick fix. The French writer and philosopher Pascal Bruckner has written a piece (translated in the conservative City Journal) that considers the recent rise in apocalyptic tendencies in western thought, and how (from a right of centre perspective at least) such doom laden scenarios can be ignored.

The prescriptions to move away from a constant growth driven lifestyle are seen as fundamental threats to the cultural values of some, and so they will not agree with the diagnosis or the proposed treatment. Beating such opponents figuratively over the head with more facts and science doesn’t work very well. There are already piles of similar reports that haven’t had much effect.  Naomi Klein also discussed this in a long article. She argued that it is pointless to try and appease some of the more rabid free marketeers by attempting to meet them half way. In her opinion only a cultural revolution, that up-ends the current capitalist system will succeed.

That, in my opinion, doesn’t look likely to succeed either – the Occupy movements have withered, and slanging matches between two extremes doesn’t garner widespread support from those in the middle. As Robert Horn has noted, we should spend less time arguing over differences in business and economic philosophies and devote more thought to finding where the points of agreement are as a means to creating realistic and enduring changes. Easier said than done – there is a lot of mistrust from all sides – but is there a better alternative?

Since the modelling of the 1972 Limits to Growth has proven to be sound, the 2052 report could most usefully be employed (along with several other reports) as a basis to less heatedly discuss assumptions and find solutions for longer term planning and prosperity for all.

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