Robert Hickson

Robert Hickson has evolved from an evolutionist, looking backwards, into a futurist. Many of the skill sets are the same; 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.

Futures snacks - Ariadne

Apr 07, 2021

Here’s a few short interesting developments or discussions I’ve seen recently. Loosely bundled together in a theme of “values.” Irregular labour Is the private sector the best provider and facilitator of “gig work”? That’s challenged in a New Yorker profile of Wingham Rowan, an English social entrepreneur. For many years he has been trying to get governments to develop a platform to help people find gig work (or “irregular labour”). Rowan views gig work as being better run as a public utility rather than as a private company. This is because the utility model would focus on finding work for people that matches their skills across a range of employers, and in ways that are more likely to provide them with good working conditions and liveable incomes. Current private sector gig work … Read More

Looking beyond regenerative agriculture - Unsorted

Mar 17, 2021

Regenerative agriculture, where the health and wellbeing of the environment, animals and farmers is prioritised, is gaining cachet. I see that as a necessary but insufficient change to how we manage land and watery environments. In some respects discussions about regenerative agriculture are more backward- than forward-looking. Take, for example, the UK’s Food, Farming and Countryside Commission. Their recent report “Farming for change: Mapping a route to 2030” looks at what it calls “Agroecology”. It examines how feasible it is to produce enough food for the UK in 2050 (despite the report title) while reducing fertilisers, pesticides and greenhouse gas emissions, improving habitats, animal welfare and peoples’ diets, and ensuring small scale farms are viable. Based on modelling they find that it is feasible, and still have some products to export. Read More

Technology listicles, deep tech, and social systems - Ariadne

Mar 02, 2021

Technology lists, what’s this thing called “Deep Tech”, and thinking beyond the tech. Top “x” lists of technology developments, breakthroughs and trends aren’t hard to find. But how useful are they?   MIT’s “Breakthrough Technologies” This time every year MIT’s Technology Review magazine produces a “10 breakthrough technologies” list. This showcases what it sees as the year’s most important technologies. For 2021 their breakthroughs are: mRNA vaccines GPT-3 (a system that uses deep learning to produce human language-like text) Tik Tok’s recommendation algorithm (which doesn’t just reflect what’s popular) Lithium metal batteries Data trusts (legal entities that collect and manage people’s personal data on their behalf) Green hydrogen (produced using renewable energy) Digital contact tracing Hyper accurate positioning (going from metres down to centimetres or millimetres) Remote everything Multi-skilled AI (where the artificial intelligence is competent in … Read More

Trends and developments – February - Ariadne

Feb 23, 2021

This post is a mix of a few recent reports on trends, recent discoveries or developments. Topics covered are the future of work, the geopolitical shift from oil to semiconductors, transition to low carbon futures, disappearing Artic sea ice, and AI in health care.   Yesterday’s Gone A Canadian report from the Brookfield Institute identifies eight megatrends that may affect employment by 2030. It notes that the pandemic has accelerated some existing trends and shifted the importance or impact of others. The eight trends they highlight are: An increasing shift from in-person to virtual interactions and activities Greater questioning of capitalism Pervasiveness of digital technologies, and the growth in biotech and space technologies Growing recognition of a climate crisis Movement toward racially just and inclusive futures Re-evaluations of work-life balances and wellbeing Geopolitical and demographic power shifts … Read More

The virus that stole Christmas - Ariadne

Dec 20, 2020

Mutant and virus are two words that rarely go well together. Reports from the UK that a  variant of SARS-CoV-2 has emerged (called lineage B.1.1.7), and may be more readily transmissible, aren’t what we want to hear just before Christmas, or any time. However, it isn’t necessarily a nightmare scenario. Coronaviruses have relatively low levels of mutation, particularly in comparison with influenza. But they do mutate so variants are expected. They may still be able to be controlled by vaccines in the pipeline.   Proving a selective advantage can be difficult It can be difficult to establish whether spread of a variant is due to a selective advantage, or due to the fact that people infected with that variant are ignoring public health guidance and spreading it more quickly. During the northern summer a variant that appeared … Read More

Is science becoming artificially intelligent? - Ariadne

Dec 09, 2020

Is science becoming “AI-led”, as some venture capitalists suggest? The short answer is no. A slightly longer response is that’s not the most important question to ask about the future of science.   A tool, not a solution DeepMind’s success in determining quite accurate 3D protein structures in a competition made headlines last week. Rightly so because it is an impressive achievement. The company is understandably gung ho on the future scientific possibilities “The progress announced today gives us further confidence that AI will become one of humanity’s most useful tools in expanding the frontiers of scientific knowledge, and we’re looking forward to the many years of hard work and discovery ahead!” It is easy, though, to get carried away with hype. Solving a protein’s … Read More

Improve mental models not metaphorical balls - Ariadne

Nov 02, 2020

Writing in the magazine Foreign Affairs Scoblic & Tetlock highlight that the US spends over a trillion dollars a year on national security but is continually being surprised by events. This they put down to taking the wrong approach in thinking about the future. The tendency (not just in the US) is to extrapolate from (and so plan for) past events, and/or focus too much on some issues, and dismiss others too quickly.   Making better predictions Scoblic & Tetlock propose combining two approaches to be better prepared for the future. The first, scenario planning, often considers futures in terms of plausibility rather than probabilities. The second, probabilistic forecasting (in which Tetlock’s research on “superforecasters” has become well known ), tries to calculate the odds of possible specific short-term outcomes. They note that … Read More

Treating an infected president - Ariadne

Oct 04, 2020

News reports indicate that a range of therapies are being tried on the President of the United States to treat his SARS-CoV-2 infection. Two of these involve treatments that have not yet completed clinical trials. One was a cocktail of two neutralising antibodies. The second is an anti-viral drug.   Monoclonal antibodies The president was initially given a single treatment of a novel “antibody cocktail” developed by Regeneron. This consists of two neutralising antibodies that bind to the virus spike protein and inhibit it from infecting cells. They are called monoclonal antibodies because each antibody is derived from the same source, rather than being a mixture of different types. The company only earlier this week released results from a small trial, but it has not yet published the results in a scientific journal. The trial on … Read More

Five things we know about COVID-19, and five we don’t - COVID-19

Sep 11, 2020

Five things we’ve learnt 1. We know where the virus ultimately came from We know that the virus originally came from bats, and most probably a species of horseshoe bat in South East Asia. However, the spike protein in SARS-CoV-2, which allows the virus to attach to cells and infect them, is more different than those from horseshoe bat sequences. While the sequence of this protein is more similar to one in a coronavirus from pangolins, researchers now think this is because the bat sequence has recombined, rather than pangolin being an intermediate host. However, this has not yet been verified. Some epidemiologists think that a less pathogenic version of the virus may have been circulating in people from Vietnam, Laos and/or Myanmar before it appeared in Wuhan, … Read More

Learning from techno-hype - Ariadne

Sep 07, 2020

There have been several hyped technological developments in the last few weeks. Nothing unusual in that, but they provide useful examples of the need to adopt a critical mindset when considering the significance of developments and trends. Some futurists seem to just scrape the headlines for content without questioning the reports. That just feeds an uncritical futures frenzy. Others enjoy debunking them. But there is the risk of being too dismissive and overlooking the broader significance of developments, even if a particular event doesn’t actually show what it claims.   Too good to be true? First up, reports of a cheap “game changing” battery, that lasts for hundreds of years, could power just about anything, and gets rid of nuclear waste. What’s not to like? A company called NDB – Nano Diamond Battery … Read More