Posts Tagged future

Uncertain predictions Robert Hickson Feb 19

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“Active open-minded thinking” and “massive ignoramus”. Those are views on what makes a good forecaster according to two  “super-forecasters” from Philip Tetlock’s and IARPA’s Good Judgment Project.  It also helps if you forecast as part of a team with other good forecasters.

But some things are more predictable than others.

Michael Burnam-Fink, in a paper in Futures, cites a observation made by Frederick Pohl in Arc 1.2  that, in science fiction stories at least, there has been better success in correctly predicting developments related to engineering where there are already well developed plans and research projects (space, weapons systems, etc), than in the biological and psychological fields, where hypotheses and theories rather than engineering solutions dominate.

No surprises there, its easier to make accurate predictions when there is more certainty. But those enthralled by new developments often forget that.

This is illustrated by MYOB’s recent Future of Business Report – New Zealand in 2040, where Simon Raik-Allen describes with complete certainty how we will all be living, or doing business. No ifs, buts, or maybes.

Including some uncertainty into your predictions is also good practice.

Rules for predicting geopolitical events have been proposed. Though I consider them as simply guidance about human behavior rather than predictive tools. These “rules” are not mutually exclusive, they can be contradictory, and they don’t describe clear outcomes.

But, as Nesta notes, making predictions is the easy part, doing something about them is much harder.

Being better prepared for the future doesn’t mean simply getting better at predicting, it also means being better prepared to make decisions in the face of uncertainties.

Amazon buys Santa’s workshop Robert Hickson Dec 22

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Following on from the Listener’s highlighting of employment condition concerns at Santa’s workshop Amazon has just announced that it has acquired the global manufacturing and logistics enterprise for an undisclosed sum (rumoured to be in excess of US$15 billion). Alibaba would not confirm whether it too had attempted to buy the family-owned company.

A combination of impending industrial action, competition from emerging economies and the need to relocate the company’s head office and main distribution centre due to unstable climatic conditions are thought to have prompted the sale.

Amazon is also not without its own labour relation problems, but it is understood that the International Elf Union has negotiated an attractive living wage and maximum hour collective agreement for its members. Spokeself for the Union, Lee Golas, stated that the agreement is a short-term measure that will be revisited next year before robotic production lines and industrial scale 3D-printer FabLabs are established. Mr Golas also indicated that relocation of the facilities to more arboreal lands was a significant factor in reaching an agreement. He appeared unconcerned about whether a long term contract could be negotiated, and made reference to “white gulls crying” and “our days are ending and our years failing” that suggest a fully automated company in the future.

It is understood that Amazon will be deploying swarms of drones to assist delivery of presents this Christmas because of animal rights group concerns about the use of Reindeer, and by lobbying from the influential “Mothers With Children Allergic to Reindeer And Don’t They Carry Lyme Disease Too?!”

Elon Musk and Neal Stephenson have expressed interest in building a suite of Space Xmas fabrication facilities in geostationary orbits, connected to space elevators and Hyperloop distribution lines.

Confidential sources report that Amazon is negotiating a contract with Palantir Technologies to improve efficiency in the seasonal gift prediction and distribution service. It is understood that Palantir will collect and analyse social media and national intelligence service information to determine which children (and adults) have been “good”. Industry analysts speculate that a five star rating for goodness may be introduced. A spokesperson for Palantir would neither confirm nor deny the venture but noted that as a matter of company policy privacy and security protection of the information it collects is an “immutable log”.

The founder and owner of the North Pole company, Mr S. Claus, did not respond to requests for comment. However, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola™ Amantil indicated that Father Christmas played an important role in the company’s history and it looked forward to working with Amazon on marketing opportunities in the future.

A spokesperson for Google declined to comment directly on Amazon’s latest acquisition but indicated that a major announcement “with bells on!” was likely to be made by Google X in the new year.

Christmas 2024 Robert Hickson Dec 17

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I’m starting to get the hang of Holoblogging now, though usually the holographic images are more disquieting than informative and they leave me feeling queasy.

People don’t seem to spend as much time reviewing the “year that was” now. They’re more interested these days in sifting the data streams to predict what’s coming up.

But for me the four biggest events this year involved data, drugs or droids: It was only a matter of time. We’ve already had public private partnerships in roads, prisons, schools, and defence, so letting the private sector manage data from government wasn’t too big a step to take. Especially not after the continued data breaches from government agencies. Still, it’s one thing to let Google collect all my private online data and history, and another for them to also hold my salary, tax and medical histories.

Of course they say it’s all held separately, with the government data only in the new server farm down near Lake Manapouri. (How much cheaper would our power be if they’d diverted all that hydropower back into the national grid?) But surely there’s a backup or two elsewhere, that’s just good business practice. Both Google and the government are distinctly cagey about that.

I must say the service has been good though, and the Personal Data Display App is great for monitoring and controling which agencies have access to my data. No major breaches, or inappropriate targeted advertising yet. But it’s only been a year, and time will tell whether it has been a smart move.

The other big data story was, of course, the  “Data dairying” challenge. I wasn’t a player, but Fonterra’s MilkMade™ game App has they say helped them train their machine learning system (Ultimate Dairying Diagnostics for Environmental Reporting) to identify patterns and problems in the sensor data from their farming and processing operations. It’s encouraging that they’ve promised to keep making the data available online too.

“Cucumber solids”. Something good, at least, has come out of the offshore iron sands and rock phosphate mining. Sea cucumbers have thrived in some of the silt-laden sites near the mining operations. They may not be as familiar as milk solids yet, but their bioactive properties seem more likely to lead to greater economic returns if the compounds make it through clinical trials and regulatory approvals in the US and China. And the start-ups out of Victoria and Auckland Universities hold onto their IP. I’m guessing, though, that we’ll see more value out of the simpler natural health products that are starting to be produced from wee beasties.

DIY ‘Droid Army.  The severe tropical storms that hit Whangarei and other parts of Northland in June brought out the 64-bit maker crowd again (that’s still a clunky term, but not as bad as “Number 8 wire 2.0” that some started using). Of course most of the semi-autonomous homemade systems were hopeless in the rain and mud and rocks cleanup, and did more harm than good until civil defence shut them down.

But ShedWorx’s exoskeleton was the exception. The video clip of the Mayor’s mum in one helping reinforce a seawall will be gold to the company, as well as to the Mayor’s re-election campaign (though her mum may get more votes).

Trying to spot the artificially intelligent HBloggers this year has been an interesting distraction. It’s getting harder of course. I’m relieved that the blogger known as “Blubber” wasn’t an AI. That would be tragic, going to all that effort to create a “smart “system that was deliberately dumb just to bottom feed and cause offense. Still, my prediction for 2025 is that that it will happen.

Extreme futuring Robert Hickson Sep 04

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It would be a reliably accurate prediction that Zager & Evans’ “In the year 2525″ will not be at the top of most futurist’s best song ever written list

YouTube Preview Image

Looking 500 years & more ahead is unusual for your common or garden futurist. Most at the moment are only looking out to the year 2030 or 2050.

However, earlier this year “From Quarks to Quasars” created an infographic looking at a possible future of the Universe and parts there in. Its big, as you’d expect so here are just a few snippets. See the whole timeline in greater detail at their website.

They start out 36,000 years from now


Copyright: From Quarks to Quasars


Move quickly past 1 million years

Copyright: From Quarks to Quasars

Copyright: From Quarks to Quasars


Beyond 1 billion too

Copyright: From Quarks to Quasars

Copyright: From Quarks to Quasars


1 trillion (really?!)

Copyright: From Quarks to Quasars

Copyright: From Quarks to Quasars


Till a bitter dark wimpering end maybe 100 trillion years into the future

Copyright: From Quarks to Quasars

Copyright: From Quarks to Quasars


That’s more than enough cosmic physics to make most futurists humble.


“What’s next?” from General Electric Robert Hickson Sep 02

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General Electric links back 50 years to an article by Isaac Asimov to promote the technologies its betting on for the future.

Writing after a visit to the 1964 “World’s Fair” Asimov speculated in the New York Times, what technologies would be around in 2014. [World Fairs didn't survive that long, but Expo's have taken their place - Milan is hosting one next year]. You can read Asimov’s piece and note both things that he predicted fairly well (such as mini computers powering robot brains, autonomous vehicles, internet-like communication) and things he didn’t (underground cities with artificially lit vegetable gardens, levitating vehicles, experimental fusion reactors, moon colonies)

Serendipitously,  Arthur C. Clarke was also visiting the World’s Fair and making predictions in 1964.

But back to GE. They have created “What’s next?” and  #nextlist to generate discussion (and good PR, presumably) about future technologies

GE nextlist



Their List has six technology areas that they have an interest in:

Extreme Machines:
Technologies will perform in any situation and any place, no matter how severe.

Super Materials:
What used to be heavy will be the lightest and strongest it’s ever been.

Industrial Internet:
Machines will help us make smarter decisions by talking with us and each other. We will be able to plan downtime, redirect resources and make entire industries from healthcare to power generation more efficient.

Mapped Minds:
We will see and understand the brain better than ever. As a result, severe neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s will become manageable.

Brilliant Factories:
The next industrial revolution will bring unseen level of productivity. With the cloud’s help, we will 3D-print any part, anytime, anywhere.

Energy Everywhere:
New forms of reliable power will reach places far off the grid.

No surprises there for future watchers – better, faster, stronger, lighter, connected.

The “mapped minds” item acknowledges their involvement in medical imaging. The term “brilliant factories” relates to having a “feedback loop from design to product engineering to manufacturing engineering to manufacturing and supply chain operation to services and back” so development and production occur more quickly, and smoothly.

In a companion paper on “The future or work” [Pdf] GE also discuss what they call brilliant machines, which  are “predictive, reactive and social”. They note, in passing, that some human jobs will go, but that they say just provides opportunities to shift to more creative and fulfilling jobs.

All is ultimately good:

it will reshuffle the competitive landscape for both companies and countries, and it will fundamentally change—for the better—the way we work and the way we live.

That’s a bit too glib, but of course they wouldn’t be saying otherwise. Its mostly about technology push, as you’d expect from a manufacturer. But as Asimov’s article 50 years ago shows, not everything will happen how or when you expect it to.

Meanwhile over at MIT’s media lab they are attempting to teach ethics to engineers via science fiction. That’s a start, but it would be useful to involve real ethicists and other humanities professors in their courses (if they don’t already) so the students get a proper academic grounding. Would an arts department put Arthur C. Clarke & Isaac Asimov on their reading lists to teach students about space ship design principles?


Signs from the near future Robert Hickson May 20

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A tumblr site called Signs from the near future by Fernando Barbella imagines what technologies may be widely used not so long from now. Its cleverly done, and gets you thinking. Although the strapline “We better get used to them …” implies a lack of control or choice, which I hope won’t be the case.

The Verge highlighted the work.

The signs cover autonomous vehicles, lab grown meat, “smart contact lenses,

Jet pack rentals (Yeah, right)


and synthetic biology and neural implants



Counting sheep scenarios Robert Hickson May 14

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I’ve just come across this research project – Counting sheep - being run by Anne Galloway at Victoria University’s School of Design. It is exploring how cultural studies and design research could support public engagement on the development & use of science and technology.

In a post last year I had asked if any NZ design groups were interested in foresight. It is good to see that there is interest.

Anne’s team is interested in what could be done with the increasing amount of information being generated by farming. They have developed four scenarios about possible futures of merino sheep farming, and are now soliciting feedback from the public to see what appeals and doesn’t about the particular uses of science and technology, and potential future farming practices.

The scenarios are:

Boneknitter – using merino wool as a knitted cast to help fix broken bones

Grow Your Own Lamb – you choose how to have a lamb raised on a farm on in a lab for your later dining pleasure.

Kotahitanga Farm – high tech farming on the urban fringe, where you can monitor animal and farm performance through a suite of sensors

PermaLamb – a genetically modified and cyborg lamb to look after at home, and receive tax credits

The last scenario is particularly off the wall. Boneknitter and Kotahitanga reach back to include some more traditional practices. If they tweak the Kotahitanga scenario by providing cheap-ish shepherd cottages that could also help address housing affordability near major centres. But I can imagine the price of lamb if it was growing next to Auckland. Grow your own lamb seems to offer the potential for a reality TV spin-off.

Great to see this imaginative approach being taken here. I’ll look forward to reading the results.

A myopic vision of the future Robert Hickson May 05

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The New York Times has a disappointing short article/graphic titled “A vision of the future from those likely to invent it“.

Disappointing because they interview only 7 people, all from/associated with Silicon Valley, who are supposedly “driving the technological transformation”. Sure the internet is likely to have a large role in our future lives, but they have taken a very limited view of the future – technologically and geographically. Energy, food, demographics, urban environment, health care, manufacturing and the social sciences hardly get a look in.

Granted we only get brief sound bites from the interviewees, but its all fairly unsurprising – drones, wearable computing, personalised medicine, implantable chips, virtual reality.

They do add a twist by asking what jobs technology will get rid of in the short term. But again, fairly trite. I think we’ll still have pilots on commercial flights 10 years from now (though probably with less actual flying to do).

They touch on “what’s next to undergo a sea change in social acceptance” as well. Marc Andreessen makes a good point, I think, about  ”… a more generalised acceptance of widespread variations in human behaviour”. But Peter Thiel’s big issue seems out of left field –  (american) football becoming unacceptable. (Boxing seems to be under going a small revival despite the known dangers, and there is an awful lot of money, and university prestige tied up in football).

Ev Williams suggests factory farming will disappear. That seems optimistic – how will americans be able to rapidly shift to a new way of food production?

In a companion piece, the Times redeems itself, somewhat, by noting how the views of Silicon Valley greats vary from starry-eyed to pragmatic when talking about how “Tech” (aka information technology) can “save the world”.

Its often more useful not to talk to inventors about how they think their inventions will change the world. The BBC highlights some wonderful (and some not so) inventions, on display at Dublin’s Science Gallery that failed to succeed.

Future war & peace Robert Hickson Apr 29

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While this past weekend the country has looked back on wars past, what of the future of war?

There are two questions here – will there be wars in the future, and if so, how will they be fought?

Armed conflicts have been declining (both in terms of number of wars and casualties) over recent decades, particularly following the end of the cold war.

Source: Center for Systemic Peace -

Source: Center for Systemic Peace –


Source: The Economist

Source: The Economist


The amount spent by western nations on their armed forces is also declining, although other countries are increasing their military budgets.

But will this continue?

Conflict tracker monitors current areas of conflict, while the Asia Foundation has a report on potential conflicts within the Asian region

Others are attempting to predict future conflicts - although they didn’t flag the recent Ukrainian crisis, so more work on their models is required. But what to do to prevent these conflicts erupting?

Some suggest we won’t see the scale of last century’s wars again, due to spreading globalization and democracy, fewer colonies seeking independence, the end of the cold war, and/or a range of other factors.

However, the Economist  has noted that some conditions now are similar to those 100 years ago just before the onset of WWI  (also available here). They see the biggest danger as complacency, where leaders in both the public and private sectors don’t act beyond their own narrow self-interests, and consequently let madness over run rationality. Wars usually occur because one or both sides think that they are in a more powerful position.

There is also debate over whether competition for resources by rapidly developing countries, and the effects of changing climates may exacerbate or create new conflicts.  The Economist also reports on a study by Hsiang, Burke & Miguel that looks at the historical evidence for links between climate and conflict. The recent IPCC report also suggests climate change may drive conflicts.

While imperial colonialism is supposedly on the way out, “land grabs” by rich countries of agricultural land in poorer countries is likely to be an additional conflict trigger.

It’s sometimes said that the military always plans with an eye directed backward – the next war will be just like the previous one (or the current one) but with new weapons.  That seems to be the case with a recent war game the US Army played which was set 15 years hence.

The US National Intelligence Council has, though, noted a likely different geopolitical environment in the coming decades. The Sydney Morning Herald is also urging the Australian government to produce a more forward looking Defence white paper to guide the future shape and purpose of their military forces.

A lot of attention has been given to the possibility of future conflicts (and armed forces) being more about the use of unmanned autonomous vehicles (even printed ones), cyborg soldiers, robots, and artificial intelligence ,and/or being undertaken in cyberspace (see here too). The military industrial complex is already gearing up for these.

Some consider that robots and enhanced soldiers will reduce casualties because they’ll be more precise, although there is likely to be a reluctance (socially, politically and militarily) to have robots and drones make their own decisions to use lethal force. While the manufacturers of military robots and software are typically confident that they’ll be safe and controllable, others are concerned that the development of AI and robotics will outstrip ethical and moral safeguards, and so more caution is required.

While we honour and lament the tragic loss of life and destruction in past wars, what will be our attitude to future conflicts where fewer humans may have to fight or die? Will we be more comfortable sending in robots and make less effort in preventing conflicts reaching a lethal level? Will we honour injured and fallen military robots (some soldiers already do)? Do we lose some of our humanity by allowing machines do the thinking and killing for us?

The warnings already gone out that a new approach to peace keeping is also necessary.


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 (



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