Archive February 2013

Homo electronicus – update Robert Hickson Feb 28

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This just in from Slate – interview with a “cyborg”. Neil Harbisson, who has a device to allow him to sense colour talks about some of the experiences and discrimination he has experienced. He notes the current situation is somewhat like those experienced by transsexuals, and that societal attitudes, as well as healthcare services, will need to change.

Future Foods Robert Hickson Feb 26

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Will farm livestock become endangered species? Social, economic and environmental drivers are converging to not only look at producing food more efficiently and sustainably, but are also stimulating new ways to produce meat or remove the need for it altogether. Such changes, if successful, could have substantial effects on New Zealand’s agricultural and economic landscapes.

Lab-grown meat has been worked on for a while, and convergence with other technologies is starting. Modern Meadow  is aiming to print meat. In vitro production of meat still has a long way to go, technically, economically and socially. There is scepticism that it will become economically viable and sufficiently scaleable. Or even appeal to consumers. But would it really be that different from currently available mechanically extracted meat products , insects or some of the delights whipped up by molecular gastronomists?

Will our culinary future need meat? Bloomberg BusinessWeek  notes the emergence of start-ups looking at plant proteins to replace meat and egg products. This goes way beyond that culinary favourite of yore – textured vegetable protein What is particularly noteworthy about these developments is that some of the key backers are VCs who have also focused on clean technologies. Some of them are hoping that the food companies will give quicker returns on investments.

Like the “food pills” of yesteryear these new technologies may not come to pass, but they warrant careful consideration because of their potential to disrupt traditional practices. If a good cheap substitute for milk powder is created what effect will that have on our milk producers? A premium price for real milk or a quaint cottage industry?

Alongside vertical farming and technologies to enhance food safety these developments signal a higher tech approach to food production, and increasing emphasis on production practices, that New Zealand may not be sufficiently prepared for.

 The Future Food project undertaken by ESR, Plant & Food Research, and others, considered the implications of some new technologies and social factors on food production here, but didn’t consider the full range of technological innovation occurring in the food sector. 

Thinking Futures Workshop Robert Hickson Feb 22


The NZ Futures Trust is running a workshop in Wellington on 6th March. The purpose is to help connect up future thinkers and to help identify how the Futures Trust can better support futures thinking in NZ. The workshop will:

• identify gaps in the way futuring works to support New Zealand businesses

communities, policy-making and decision-making.

• identify and review potential “fixes” for the system gaps

• consider new ways to connect with other organisations, and

• work out how we can open up access to the resources held by NZFT and other organisations.

To find out more and register go here. Spaces are limited.


I’m involved in helping organise the workshop.

Homo electronicus Robert Hickson Feb 22


If you could have bionic bits, would you, should you? Which ones? Currently your options are limited, but that seems likely to change over the next couple of decades. There is increasing activity in wiring up appendages and organs to the brain. As recently noted by Miguel Nicolelis, cyborgs rather than Singularity seems more likely. Lots of money is going into research to better understand and manipulate the brain.  

Pace makers, defibrillators and cochlear implants have been around a while now, and despite high costs are routinely inserted in more affluent countries.

A bionic hand that can feel as well as move is being tested, as is an arm controlled solely by thought .

The FDA has just approved a bionic eye implant that can restore some vision (it’s been available longer in Europe). The device, made by Second Sight Medical Products, costs US$100,000 and has 60 electrodes that need to be wired up. Future developments aim to increase connectivity, and hence vision quality. Costs will also probably fall. Similar devices are also being developed by others.

Researchers have also given rats a new sensory capability as they investigate how to rewire the brain.

DARPA’s investing in developing a brain-computer interface to help handles lots of data, as well as other enhancements to improve soldiers physical and mental capabilities. The large numbers of military and civilian casualties from Afghanistan and Iraq is also stimulating development of advanced prosthetics and implants.

As far as I know, no one with normal hearing has had an implant to make them hear better, and rewiring your retina to have x-ray or eagle eye vision also seems unlikely for most people. More probably people will go for cheaper and less invasive external enhancements, like electronic contact lenses, or advanced Google glasses. Some implantable devices that can communicate with external devices or brain signals are also much easier and cheaper to insert, so have the potential to be more widely used.

Some people are interested in introducing RFID chips into themselves (or their children). Kevin Warwick has had several operations to introduce electronic components into himself as part of his research. However, some RFID recipients now regret their decisions or recognise that they weren’t sufficiently well informed.

The increasing number of chemical and electronic “enhancements” becoming available raise concerns about the ethics, equity, privacy, liability and long term safety of them . What if your employer required or encouraged some enhancements to enable you to work more effectively, efficiently, or safely? Or cyborgs were more likely to be employed?. What if an implant to correct a medical condition results in other unforeseen enhancements

There is a sense that we’ll become more intimate with electronics this Century, through choice or obligation. That’s not a done deal, widespread public discussions on the issues are only just beginning.

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