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.

Futurists, a field guide - Ariadne

Dec 20, 2017

While you are out and about over summer keep and eye and ear out for futurists. They are not so common in the antipodes, but more are starting to appear on our shores. There are several species (and subspecies), so I’ve created a little guide to help you identify the most likely ones that you’ll come across in the wild. Some are more worthy of attention than others.   Mayfly futurist – Ephemera ephemera Source: Hectonichus – CC BY-SA 3.0, These tend to swarm briefly, particularly in the social media, marketing and fashion fields. Their defining characteristic is the very short term, with production of “Top ten trends in X for 2018”. Can be readily snapped up, but provide little sustenance.   Dung beetle futurist – Scarabaeus singularis Source: Axel Strauß – CC BY-SA 3.0 Characteristically ponderous, specialising … Read More

From battling bots to robo-athletes - Ariadne

Dec 07, 2017

Robotic combat is becoming a thing. In TV studios, not the battlefield. A tiresome thing, the hi-tech equivalent of Monster Truck shows. MegaBots promotes itself as “the future of sports“. (I think they forgot the (TM) in that tag line.) But they have a way to go to be more that dudes driving dumbbots. Its more like professional wrestling at the moment, with staged fighting sequences. Then there are the BattleBots, a TV series of smaller devices (more radio-controlled it seems than autonomous) trying to deconstruct their opponent. And the less excitable sumo bots. You see more diversity in events with RoboGames – “the Olympics of Robots”. This probably helps stimulate developments, although mostly in single tasks. More versatile demonstrations of skill are found … Read More

The science of prediction - Ariadne

Dec 04, 2017

It’s coming up to that time of year when predictions start popping out like buskers playing Christmas jingles. We all know a litany of bad predictions: “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” Western Union internal memo, 1876 “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”  Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943 “It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter, …” Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss, 1954 “Before man reaches the moon, your mail will be delivered within hours from New York to Australia by guided missiles.  We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”  Arthur Summerfield, U.S. Postmaster General, 1959 “We don’t like their … Read More

Beyond the basics - Ariadne

Nov 08, 2017

We’re gonna’ need a bigger band wagon. Faced with predictions of mass unemployment due to increasing automation calls to implement a universal basic income have been growing. This involves giving everyone an income regardless of whether they work or not. Though it is getting a less favourable welcome in Australia, because of what it may cost and its effectiveness. The International Monetary Fund thinks it may be feasible in some countries but not others. Several trials are underway to see if it achieves what it is supposed to, so it isn’t something to rush into. The assumptions being made about mass unemployment also need to be looked at closely, as I’ve noted previously. Nicolas Colin makes excellent points about not seeing the universal basic … Read More

Cities of the mind - Ariadne

Nov 01, 2017

Metropolis, the Jetsons, Blade Runner. Imagining cities of the future is a popular past-time. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has just announced his vision of the mega-city of the future – Neom. With web site. And the price tag too (half a trillion dollars in case you missed it).     This struck me as more ego that eco. A “continued domination of nature”, to borrow from architect Anthony Thistleton. Technologies used to transform the environment. Limitless rather than limited. A totally different approach is Arcosanti in Arizona’s Sonoran desert. A “city” in the making for the last half century. Built to be “part of the landscape, not in spite of it.” It comes across as a desiccated Hobbiton. But it is about transforming consciousness of what … Read More

The future of labour - Ariadne

Oct 24, 2017

Not the party, the activity. Labour day in New Zealand is when a few remember and (mostly) celebrate the improvements in working conditions over time, while many just enjoy a day off. However, there has been much angst recently that, thanks to increasing automation, many of us will soon not have the experience of paid employment. Reflecting what seems to be a common view, the US’s Pew Research Center report on automation notes that respondents while not too worried that their own job is at risk are concerned overall about the effect of automation on jobs. Is this likely to become reality, or is it, as Nesta suggests, “false alarmism“? You can pick your opinion pieces to support whatever view you adhere to. The journal Nature has just published a set … Read More

Tomorrow really never comes - Ariadne

Oct 10, 2017

In Zeno’s philosophical paradox Achilles can never overtake the tortoise. Similarly, it sometimes seems that future technologies never arrive. Grace Ballenger and Aaron Mak writing in Slate highlight the “Goldilocks” zone of technological predictions – the next big thing is neither too close to be here by Christmas, nor too far away to become purely fictional. The technology is nearly always just “five to ten years” away from becoming mainstream. Flying cars, jet packs, fusion power, household robotic servants. Ballenger & Mak give 81 examples of predictions that use this phrase over the last 20 years. Most haven’t eventuated even after ten years (though some of their examples are predictions made within the last five years). Their point is not that predictions are snake oil, just that we usually under estimate how long it takes to get … Read More

Peak State? - Ariadne

Oct 06, 2017

Are we approaching “peak State”, where the power of diverse nation states starts to decline back toward greater power being held by large cities or culturally or religiously more homogeneous regions? Catalonians and Iraqi Kurds voted in independence referenda this last week. In contrast to Scotland’s and the UK’s Brexit referenda a few years ago neither of these has the support of their State governments. Cameroon too, has had a violent independence riot. Other cities and regions have expressed an interest in seceding from their countries. Some groups even want to establish their own micro-nations off-shore, away from meddling governments. And, as we are seeing in the US, some states are taking the initiative when they see their federal government failing to … Read More

Thinking beyond capitalism - Ariadne

Sep 24, 2017

Joey Eschrich, writing in Slate, suggests that the futures industry has a “dearth of imagination”. He contends that futurists pay too little attention to “post-capitalist” futures. “As we fret over the future, we worry about rising sea levels and robotic job-snatchers, but the economic and political supremacy of the capitalist market doesn’t seem to be up for discussion.”   He makes some valid points. Futures projects often consider the implications of changing geopolitical environments, but changing economic systems aren’t often explicitly considered in the same detail. Some look not at replacing capitalism, but “re-imagining” it. Rising inequality and economic insecurity are widely recognized in futures discussions, although there is a tendency to jump to a form of universal basic income as a solution, whilst retaining the current economic system. However, he’s wrong that … Read More

The once and future farmer - Ariadne

Sep 16, 2017

In our own cultural memory New Zealand used to have the best farming system in the world. No more, according to some. Two recent articles about the Netherlands illustrate how we are falling behind in some ways, and can provide a stimulus for how we can do better. National Geographic highlights the Netherland’s sustainable agricultural system in this month’s issue of their magazine. “ Almost two decades ago, the Dutch made a national commitment to sustainable agriculture under the rallying cry “Twice as much food using half as many resources.” Since 2000, van den Borne and many of his fellow farmers have reduced dependence on water for key crops by as much as 90 percent. They’ve almost completely eliminated the use of chemical pesticides on plants in greenhouses, and since 2009 Dutch poultry and livestock … Read More