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.

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

It’s complex - Ariadne

Jul 29, 2020

An article in the EETimes suggests that advances in autonomous vehicles are not moving as quickly as expected because those working on them have confused complicated problems with complex ones. Engineering can only take you so far in complex worlds. Complicated systems tend to have fairly predictable inputs, processes and outputs. Complex systems (like city streets) not so. Complicated systems are often designed, while complex ones are more organic. The article notes that some of the autonomous vehicle companies are directing their focus to more predictable operating environments such as retirement villages, campuses, and long-distance trucking. These are less complex than navigating chaotic (to algorithms at least) urban streets. It feels like we are confusing the complicated and the complex in other areas too.   The allure of the complicated An article in  … Read More

The long and winding rivers of social change - Ariadne

Jul 06, 2020

 I like Andrew Curry’s succinct and insightful futures blog The Next Wave. His most recent post is about social change. In particular, the decadal-long periods usually required for changes in values. He highlights a 2016 paper by Inglehart and Norris, who examined whether economic insecurity or a “cultural backlash” are behind the recent political shifts towards populism. They looked at social surveys from Europe and found that: “all of the five cultural value scales proved consistent predictors of voting support for populist parties” They propose a cultural shift from “modern” to “post-materialist” values. The former they define as being about conformity, hierarchy and authority. The latter places greater emphasis on issues such as environmental protection, increased acceptance of gender and racial equality, and … Read More

The “Great Reset” - Ariadne

Jun 07, 2020

The World Economic Forum has launched a new initiative that they are calling “The Great Reset”. Its purpose is to help “guide decision-makers on the path to a more resilient, sustainable world beyond coronavirus” At first glance it can look like virtue signalling by some of the world’s elite. The WEF’s annual Davos forum, which it has run for over 30 years, is viewed, justifiably, by some as a just a talk fest with little action. Others see it as calling for reforms but really wanting to maintain the status quo. At last year’s January Davos meeting Nik Gowing reported that there was an “Oh sh_t” realisation that economic systems needed to change to address climate change impacts (or rather ensure that … Read More

Building the bridges to the future - Ariadne

May 17, 2020

In a previous post I noted that futures thinking usually tries to identify what people think will change and what they think needs to change. As lockdown constraints ease, we are seeing a lot of opinions about both. There is no shortage of shovel ready points of view and aspirations. Aspirations are good, but what we aren’t seeing so much of (at least I haven’t) is more nuanced thinking about how we get from here to there, and how different aspirations and expectations may be negotiated. Many advocating for a low carbon economy envisage a sudden shift. While those arguing for retaining some of the status quo favour a not so hasty change. So, what we end up with is often framed as a dichotomy of choices – “either, or” rather than … Read More