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.

Science in the ’20s – part 1 - Ariadne

Jan 15, 2020

  Outrageous, immoral or downright dangerous. That’s a description of the lifestyle of women “flappers” in the 1920s. Could it apply to science (and scientists) in the 2020s? Actually, you could look back at the past decade and see those, or similar terms, used about some science and scientists. Sometimes justifiably, most times not. Looking ahead ten years it is presumptive to predict what the most important discoveries and developments will be. Many futurists focus instead on “megatrends” – large global trends and developments that influence many aspects of life. This, however, can often only get you to fairly anodyne statements – “there are going to be more powerful technologies (that are going to change everything)” [AI, robots, nanotech, synbio. Wait, here comes a connected network of nano-sized artificially intelligent cyborgs], or “the pace … Read More

Transitioning - Ariadne

Dec 31, 2019

Two things you can guarantee at this time of the year. Predictions about the coming year, and days at the beach (only lightly polluted, hopefully). Futures thinking is often seen as identifying the “next big thing” – technology and consumer trends. But that’s surface level futuring. Wave spotting. As a first step in raising awareness of change such an approach can be helpful. But what’s ultimately more useful is describing the deeper tides and currents of change. It’s reminding people that the future isn’t a thing but a transition. Like rip tides, it’s what people don’t see that can get them in trouble. Transitions aren’t the “disruptions” and “transformations” favoured by technology pundits and some futurists. Those can often just be (band) wagons rolling across the same old prairie. Transitions are bigger than one firm or industry winning … Read More

Artificial Intelligence and You - Ariadne

Dec 10, 2019

How should we think about artificial intelligence and the implications that it has for our work and leisure? There are many articles on artificial intelligence and its potential impacts on jobs, and the ethics of applications. These are important topics, but I want to focus on some less discussed aspects, which I covered in a recent presentation. A helpful quote when thinking about the impacts of technologies comes from a historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger: “Science and technology revolutionize our lives, but memory, tradition and myth frame our response.” Artificial hype It is easy to get overwhelmed, or overawed, with recent progress in artificial intelligence. Developments are moving rapidly, and there are some impressive advances. Take a look at DeepIndex to see what is, in their … Read More

A future of government - Ariadne

Oct 12, 2019

  How could government evolve over the next decades? Reports of democracy’s imminent demise are greatly exaggerated.  However, satisfaction with political systems in many countries is low, so there is much to do for governments of all political stripes to improve relevance and trust. Digital technologies are seen as one way of helping achieve this. Just make them more like good “friction-less” digital service companies, some suggest. However, a government run by an artificial intelligence is both highly improbable and undesirable. [Oh for a political leader with “great and unmatched wisdom“] Many do, though, see technologies helping improve how government (central and local) are run. Including as a means for getting more people voting. The latter may … Read More

Climate change – determination over despair - Ariadne

Sep 19, 2019

  There is much to be despondent about looking ahead to the consequences of a changing climate. But adopting Jonathan Franzen’s defeatism isn’t the best response. Reducing adverse impacts of climate change isn’t as simple as regulating automotive emissions, banning a pesticide of refrigerant, or changing to LED lights. But nor is it as seemingly impossible as the 12 labours of Hercules. Changes in a range of practices, both big and small, are required. Some recent reports are attempting to quantify the benefits of different actions, and illustrating what are already working. The Global Commission on Adaptation (run by the World Resources Institute, and involving a former UN Secretary General, the current CEO of the World Bank, and Bill Gates) has released a report that calculates investing $1.8 trillion … Read More

Biology’s next revolution - Ariadne

Sep 09, 2019

  A quarter of a century ago, when I thought my future was in science, automation and the idea of “big data” had just arrived for genetics. Automated sequencing, mathematical models, algorithms. Similar innovations spread to others areas of biology through things like better sensors, imaging systems, smarter radio tags for wildlife, data-loggers, and the like. Wet labs got less wet, and computer suites multiplied. Science started following its own version of “Moore’s Law” – the relative amount of time on analytical and computational effort doubled every year (or so it seemed). Now there is another revolution underway in biology labs. Artificial intelligence methods, such as deep learning and neural networks. Several recent reports highlight this. The May issue of The Scientist looked at how AI is being in … Read More

Beyond the moon(shot) - Ariadne

Jul 17, 2019

  There is a lot now being talked and written about the success of Apollo 11, and the Apollo space programme, half a century ago. The BBC podcast 13 minutes to the moon is fantastic. It tells well the story leading up to and during the 13 minutes that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the lunar surface on July 20, 1969 (While Michael Collins became the “loneliest” man on & off the world, orbiting the moon). It re-emphasizes the technological as well as the human wonder that made it possible. Inevitably too, commemorating Apollo 11 stimulates talk about the need for new figurative “moonshots.” These are ambitious long-term planetary-bound technological projects. Silicon Valley’s been a booster for moonshots for some time. Exhibit X: the “Moonshot Factory.” They take … Read More

The evolution of work and workers - Ariadne

Jul 09, 2019

  If you have a job (say, driving a truck, or working in a warehouse) and that job gets automated, what are your future employment options? A recent analytical paper on networks by Jordan D. Dworkin looks at this situation mathematically. It brought to my mind studies of fitness landscapes in evolutionary biology – when conditions change what are the new niches that you could move into? Dworkin notes that many studies of the risks of automation focus solely on the potential automatability of individual jobs. His paper looks not just at how likely particular jobs are to be automated, but the projected growth in other job fields and the similarity of skill sets between them. Given your current job, and its associated skill set, what new types … Read More

Robot dog meet robot stick - Unsorted

Jul 03, 2019

  Four years ago I wrote about getting too carried away with evolutionary metaphors for robots. But I can’t deny that we’re are seeing an increasing diversity of robotic forms and capabilities. The technological sophistication of high-end robotics, and the speed with which they are improving, is impressive. Check out SpotMini’s moves.   Although a better display of it’s capabilities, and those of it’s canid-like robo-compatriots, can be seen in this video: But equally, there are very interesting developments in other areas of robotics. Such as a soft robotic lion fish that uses fluid for both it’s mobility and power source, mimicking the multifunctional nature of animal circulatory systems. Or self-organising robot swarms. And then there is … Read More

Jill of all trades, and mistress of some - Ariadne

Jun 24, 2019

There are at least three inter-related factors shaping the nature of work – technologies aiding or replacing human workers; off-shoring (businesses sending work to other countries where labour is cheaper); and a shift from specialist to generalist skills. The latter is well discussed by Jerry Useem in the Atlantic. The US Navy’s been experimenting with “hybrid sailors” – not part man-part machine, or interspecies crosses, but employing crew who can do a range of tasks rather than just one role. That’s a practice spreading in the commercial world too. Many journalists, for example, now do their own photography, videography, blogging, and tweeting, as well as the other aspects of reporting. While new technologies can play a factor, other things are important too, such as the availability of workers and the increasingly dynamic … Read More