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.

Goldilocks and the three futures - Ariadne

Jun 20, 2021

Goldilocks, the house breaker, always had a choice of three, one of which always appeared to be just right. Temporally, there’s three types of futures too. Short-term, medium-term, and long-term. Those are all relative, depending on what you are looking at. Some technologies, for example, change very quickly, so “long-term” may be less than a decade. In contrast, societal change often plays out over decades, while environmental changes may occur over a century or more. Unlike for Goldilocks, none of these futures timeframes will be “just right”, because the future isn’t edible or a piece of furniture. Nor is it a destination. But it’s important to consider which timeframe(s) best suits the issue(s) you are interested in. Often futures reports seem to pick a date out of the ether and then fit the subject matter … Read More

Significant declarations – signals of change - Ariadne

May 25, 2021

Several significant statements or declarations have been made recently. Some are signals of change, others are just signalling. The International Energy Agency has long been criticised for misreading renewable energy trends. Last week though, in their report Net Zero by 2050 they made a recommendation: There is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply in our net zero pathway That is a major shift. The report makes it seem like they are one of the first to come to this conclusion. But it’s a major change from an agency known to stick closely to the status quo.   Good intentions? In a similar vein, the CEO of Shell stated that half of the company’s energy mix will be “clean” later this decade. If we do not make that type of process by … Read More

SARS-CoV-2 – a natural event or a lab escape? - Ariadne

May 16, 2021

In books and movies it is often a good plot point for a disease (or monster) to escape, accidentally or with assistance, from a government lab. There are also real cases of pathogens getting out of labs (but quickly being controlled). That’s also a discussion going on now about Covid-19. Natural evolution or human agency? Spillover or accident? The origin of SARS-CoV-2 still isn’t definitive. A letter published last week in Science from some leading public health and infectious disease researchers calls for greater scrutiny of the possibility that the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic resulted from an accidental release from a lab. The World Health Organisation investigation earlier this year concluded that a laboratory escape as the source was “extremely unlikely.” But the authors of the Science letter point out that assessment received … Read More

Types of futures reports - Ariadne

May 08, 2021

The web comic xkcd created a great (satirical) overview of the types of scientific papers. That got me thinking about the types of futures reports I commonly see.   There are very good reports out there. You just need to read with a critical eye.   Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash … Read More

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