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.

Healthcare in the future - Ariadne

Oct 14, 2018

When thinking about the future of healthcare, images of robot surgeons, predictive algorithms, nanoparticles and nanobots in your bloodstream, CRISPR, and wearable or ingestible sensors may come to mind. A future of big technological advances that help get rid of once acute conditions (like cancers, infectious diseases), and improve the monitoring and treatment of chronic ones (like heart disease, diabetes and obesity). Robot surgeons, diagnostic AI systems, new cancer treatments, and online health are sometimes called “technological disrupters” – they have the potential to displace (or work with) highly trained medical staff, or provide new methods of treatment. But there’s often more to significant change than just better technology. As illustrated by the problems Watson Healthcare is experiencing. How do you incorporate such technological advances into a human-centred healthcare system? Particularly one becoming more focused … Read More

Auckland’s possible futures – the simplistic version - Ariadne

Aug 01, 2018

Auckland Council’s long term spatial plan to 2050 is out. There seems to be lots of good data released with it that is worth exploring. But the thing getting the most attention at the moment is one of five scenarios in the brief Possible futures part that was released along with the plan. The “Two speed Auckland” scenario has been described as dystopian, with a highly deprived western side of the city and an affluent east. Sort of like Palo Alto vs East Palo Alto in Silicon Valley. Some, like the Salvation Army, say that rather than being a vision of the future it describes what parts of South Auckland already look like, as well as failing to understand that it isn’t the affluent that experience the most crime, but … Read More

Thinking beyond the impossible burger - Ariadne

Jul 12, 2018

The agricultural sector has long been called a “sunset industry”. If so, it’s more a long drawn out polar twilight than a quick tropical dusk. Rosie Bosworth has written about New Zealand becoming the ‘Detroit of Agriculture’. Scary stuff, for some. A welcome transformation for others, if you read the opinion pieces. But are predictions of the death of farming greatly exaggerated? The recent brouhaha over Air NZ promoting a vegetarian burger option on some of its flights highlights, again, some of the challenges facing farming. The challenges include: The ongoing transition from family farming to industrial farming systems. Attracting and retaining a skilled workforce. A growing proportion of the population with little connection to, or understanding of, rural New Zealand and agricultural practices. Growing concerns about the mental health of … Read More

Jetpack joyrides - Ariadne

Jun 19, 2018

The Jetpack has been a futuristic symbol of techno-utopia, and freedom, for a century. The first jetpack was conceived in 1919. It wasn’t until 1958, though, that the first working model was created. But they still seem further from general availability than the comparatively more pedestrian flying car, which I wrote about last year. There are some real jetpacks around, just not evenly distributed. Astronauts use them from time to time. And there are a few doing the public exhibition circuit, but nothing like the barnstorming days at the beginning of powered flight. The Martin Jetpack still hasn’t become a commercial success after decades of development. There is the flyboard air, which is a platform rather than a jetpack. The winged jetpack of … Read More

Lest we forget the future - Ariadne

Apr 25, 2018

As we always do this time of year in NZ we look back and honour past wartime sacrifices, and reflect on how they have shaped the national mindset and identity. That’s important to do, but it seems that as a country we spend a lot of time in reflection and too little looking forward. Well, you may say, the world is changing so quickly that it’s not much use looking ahead. That’s a weak excuse. As Louis Pasteur may have said “fortune favours the prepared mind” An important part of foresight is recognizing, in Sohail Inayatullah’s six pillars framework , the “weight of the past”. But another key aspect is the “pull of the future” – what are our dreams and aspirations. New Zealand’s not been great at that. Sure, some goals have been … Read More

Green sky thinking - Ariadne

Apr 09, 2018

We are starting to see more scenarios about getting to a “decarbonised” future. One where greenhouse gas emissions are no longer a problem. Many scenarios are forgettable. The good ones have the power to create the change. Shell has added a new futures scenario, called Sky, to its New Lens scenario set. I think it has that power. Its purpose is to look at what it would take for the world to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate agreement. That is, to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions before the end of this century. In case you think that Shell is just pushing it’s own agenda, they worked with The Nature Conservancy, and others, on the scenario. Westpac bank has also just released a … Read More

Electric vehicles are their consequences - Ariadne

Mar 25, 2018

Electric vehicles are increasingly popular, but for society they aren’t as simple as “plug ‘n drive”. Vector energy have produced a useful green paper on the implications of electric vehicles for NZ’s energy system I wrote last year about some of the issues facing a growing electric vehicle fleet here. Vector explores some of these issues in detail as they relate to the energy network. They highlight that you can’t think of the energy system just as a pipe (or a cable), where all you need to do to meet greater demand is to put in a bigger pipe or cable (ie add more generation). For example, the Tiwai point aluminum smelter uses as much power as 700,000 houses.  If the smelter shut down and all that power went to domestic … Read More

Future foods of the dogs - Ariadne

Mar 19, 2018

There has been quite a lot of fascination with lab-grown meats, such as the “impossible burger” [Correction: whoops, the impossible burger is, of course, made from plants. Wired has a recent article on the lab-grown kinds]. There is still a long way to go with them to become economically and gustatorily viable. However, that’s not deterring expansion into the pet food market. And we aren’t talking chicken feed.  There was around US$75 billion in sales globally last year (in the US alone the market pet food is worth nearly US$30 billion). NZ’s pet food sales are just under $400 million. A company called Wild Earth is moving into lab-grown food for pets. They too want to make “ethical” fodder. That reinforces the … Read More

What can AI do right now? - Ariadne

Mar 16, 2018

With all the hype and speculation about artificial intelligence it is nice to get some perspective on current applications. The site DeepIndex does this, recording 320 (and counting) reports of applications. They break this down into applications that are: “Crushing it” – meaning they are particularly successful, such as in playing the game Go Competent – perform about as well as a human Getting there – not that great, at the moment The site categorises applications into 19 themes; from medical applications, professional applications (such as reviewing documents), through to gaming, lifestyle (movie recommendations), and other things (such as learning common decency). It is by no means complete. It doesn’t, for example, include Zach, the application described by John Pickering, that listens to medical conversations and produces summary notes. Still it provides a useful … Read More

Little future houses on the prairie - Ariadne

Mar 12, 2018

There’s plenty of innovative thinking around building houses, but less so about communities. I’ve been writing a series of blogs on the future of construction for the industry transformation initiative. They’ll be appearing on their website over the next few months. There’s a lot going on in the housing and construction field. It’s not just about increasing the rate at which buildings (particularly houses) can be built, but also improving health and safety (of people and buildings), and raising the productivity of the sector (by, for example, better coordination of activities, and reducing costs). PrefabNZ is extolling the benefits of prefabrication, which is more common elsewhere. Flat-pack housing is coming too.  And you thought assembling a bookcase was stressful. Other innovations are starting to become more common overseas. Houses are being … Read More