Robert Hickson

Robert Hickson has evolved from a Darwinist, looking backwards, into a futurist. Many of the skill sets are the say; looking for patterns, making sense of them, and trying to fill in the gaps. He's of the view that in New Zealand we don't do enough forward looking. The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent the views of his current employer (if any), or Charles Darwin.

The flying car, nearly here? - Ariadne

Apr 21, 2017

A small German-based company, Lilium, has announced that they have successfully tested an electric “flying car”. A ducted fan mini-plane really.   Others are also looking at developing small air-borne taxis. But Lilium is the first to have a working prototype. Initially piloted, but Lilium hopes it can become autonomous and able to be summoned using a smart phone. And eventually cheap enough so most can use one. My first thought was, is this a hoax? But it looks legitimate. The CEO, Daniel Wiegand, has been talking about this for several years, and one of the investors was a co-founder of Skype. The most surprising thing for me is the speed with which they have got to prototype stage. The concept was, according to their website, developed only in 2013. New Zealand’s own Martin Jetpack is based on … Read More

Hoppy meals - Ariadne

Apr 20, 2017

Here’s a weak signal associated with changing dietary habits. Grasshoppers were on the menu at a Major League Baseball game in the US recently. At a Seattle Mariners vs Astros game six kilos of spicy grasshoppers sold out. I wrote in October in more detail about some of the trends and challenges associated with traditional western food consumption. This case illustrates how some of these new foods are getting out to the masses. Six kilos of crispy hoppers is 310 orders. For comparison 10,000 hot dogs are eaten at a Major League game. So we aren’t looking at dietary disruption yet. Still it’s part of a broader trend of trying new sources of protein. Insects aren’t yet big on fancy restaurant menus in the US. But they are a gaining popularity in Japan. The … Read More

Death and resurrection - Ariadne

Apr 17, 2017

The oldest person in the world has died, aged 117. Life expectancy in Italy in 1899 when she was born was 44 years. She wasn’t the oldest; the current record is 122. NZ’s oldest living person is 109, although the oldest so far reached 113 years. Life expectancy in New Zealand has, as elsewhere, risen dramatically over the last century and a half. Average lifespan has nearly doubled. That is spectacular. Source: Statistics NZ   Maori and Pacific people have on average shorter lives, although the differences have been decreasing.  Source: Statistics NZ   Better healthcare, sanitation, diet, and economic circumstances are key factors in improving lifespan over the last century. Reduced heart disease and declining incidence of infectious diseases explain much of the decline in … Read More

Foresight as a gravitational force - Ariadne

Mar 21, 2017

Jonathan Boston, of Victoria University, is launching two books this week on anticipatory governance. These are based on his study tour looking at how other governments look ahead. One, Safeguarding the future, from Bridget Williams Books is an extended précis of his larger Governing for the future. Jonathan notes New Zealand and many other governments have a “presentist” bias – making short term political decisions. His books note possible ways to address this bias. His thesis is well researched, and timely. However, while political structures are important for longer term thinking, they aren’t sufficient. A broader appeal is necessary to make these structures effective, and enduring. Cat Tully notes the need to integrate foresight into policy and decision making as a business as usual practice, and to look beyond simply the creation of institutions … Read More

Send lawyers, bots, and money - Ariadne

Mar 14, 2017

The bank JP Morgan Chase & Co. has used machine learning to complete some mundane tasks (such as interpreting commercial-loan agreements) in “… a matter of seconds”  that would normally take 360,000 human hours. It also reduced the number of mistakes. Many legal firms (and banks) are investing in artificial intelligence (AI) to take over routine tasks. Including in NZ. Is this the death knell for many legal positions? No. At least not yet. JP Morgan isn’t shedding all those human jobs, but using technologies to move people to “work on higher-value things”. Unacknowledged ironies in predictions about the impact of AI (with its superior data analytics) on work are the scarcity of data to support those contentions and the simplistic analyses that are often employed to make them. However, Remus & Levy have analysed the issue … Read More

The internet of predatory things - Ariadne

Mar 05, 2017

My first job after completing my Bachelor’s was tracking and trapping rats on Stewart Island. Decades later, the tools and approaches for mammalian pest control have progressed; better lures, traps and poisons. But not so much. Particularly if you compare how the field of genetics has changed over the same time; from laborious manual DNA sequencing to high-speed automation. The objectives of Predator Free 2050 seem to want to continue the traditional approach to refining trapping and poisoning. Although reproductive disrupters and genetic approaches may be involved eventually (see Helen’s Sciblog post too). Why not really bring pest control into the 21st Century? Lets go big on data and analytics, not just building better (mouse)traps. Rentokill is already moving in this direction for protecting premises from pests. Conservation efforts too are starting to … Read More

Autonomous beasts and where to find them - Ariadne

Mar 02, 2017

Seeing Boston Dynamics’ latest robot “Handle” got me thinking about the diversity of other autonomous (or nearly so) robots that have appeared over the last few years.   I’ve previously noted the prediction of a robotic “Cambrian explosion”. We aren’t at that stage yet, but it is interesting to look at the variety “out” there. Though mostly they are still in R&D labs. Starting small and squishy, we have gel bots   Larger jelly ones (Festo, a German automation company who have made several animal-like robots, also have an aerial jellyfish version. Most of their robots don’t seem to have real applications at this stage). Then there is the Octobot, another proof-of-concept simple bot.   A dragonfly, from Festo (they do butterfly swarms too)   RoboBee (which needs an external power source) … Read More

Cyborg bugs - Ariadne

Feb 10, 2017

Here’s a sci-fi scenario that may become reality: genetically modified cyborgs susceptible to mind control. That’s the plan for a collaboration between engineering R&D firm Draper and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  They are focusing on dragonflies, and using optogenetics so that their movements can be controlled by light. The techniques and technologies are there, they just need to put them together.     Essentially they are hoping to create flying sensors that have better capabilities than artificial drones, since they don’t need batteries. They are the flip side of organisms inspiring robot designs. Bomb detecting locusts are also being considered by other research groups. And electronic plants are in development too. The boundaries between biology, physics and engineering are blurring. Cyborg cockroaches have been tried before, but … Read More

Computer games - Ariadne

Jan 31, 2017

Another one bites the dust. Libratus, an artificial intelligence program from Carnegie Mellon University has beaten four top Texas Hold’em poker players in a series of two player games over the last three weeks. That’s big news because unlike chess and go, poker playing relies on incomplete information. And you have to decide when to bet, and how much. So there is a more complex set of factors than just calculating moves to consider. A range of games have seen top human players lose to computers over the last few decades   Toby Walsh describes these in more detail. Classic computer arcade games are also being played by AI. As Toby also notes, the Texas hold’em approach is largely brute force computing, relying on a supercomputer. This is different from the deep learning approach of … Read More

Thinking the unpalatable - Ariadne

Jan 25, 2017

If you look beyond the current concerns of rising populist authoritarianism there is a greater threat. It’s what Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon in the UK have called the failure to “think the unthinkable”. Based on interviews with a range of Chief Executives and other senior people in the public and private sector they highlight that current institutional structures and behaviours are not well set up to deal with the complexities and pace of change that we now face. They note that it may be more accurate to label it a renewed call for “thinking the unpalatable”. This is because many of the “surprises” over the last decade that they cite – the global financial crisis, the rise of Daesh/ISIS, the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the rapid spread of Ebola and Zika viruses, and the Brexit vote … Read More