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.

Cyborg bugs - Ariadne

Feb 10, 2017

Here’s a sci-fi scenario that may become reality: genetically modified cyborgs susceptible to mind control. That’s the plan for a collaboration between engineering R&D firm Draper and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  They are focusing on dragonflies, and using optogenetics so that their movements can be controlled by light. The techniques and technologies are there, they just need to put them together.     Essentially they are hoping to create flying sensors that have better capabilities than artificial drones, since they don’t need batteries. They are the flip side of organisms inspiring robot designs. Bomb detecting locusts are also being considered by other research groups. And electronic plants are in development too. The boundaries between biology, physics and engineering are blurring. Cyborg cockroaches have been tried before, but … Read More

Computer games - Ariadne

Jan 31, 2017

Another one bites the dust. Libratus, an artificial intelligence program from Carnegie Mellon University has beaten four top Texas Hold’em poker players in a series of two player games over the last three weeks. That’s big news because unlike chess and go, poker playing relies on incomplete information. And you have to decide when to bet, and how much. So there is a more complex set of factors than just calculating moves to consider. A range of games have seen top human players lose to computers over the last few decades   Toby Walsh describes these in more detail. Classic computer arcade games are also being played by AI. As Toby also notes, the Texas hold’em approach is largely brute force computing, relying on a supercomputer. This is different from the deep learning approach of … Read More

Thinking the unpalatable - Ariadne

Jan 25, 2017

If you look beyond the current concerns of rising populist authoritarianism there is a greater threat. It’s what Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon in the UK have called the failure to “think the unthinkable”. Based on interviews with a range of Chief Executives and other senior people in the public and private sector they highlight that current institutional structures and behaviours are not well set up to deal with the complexities and pace of change that we now face. They note that it may be more accurate to label it a renewed call for “thinking the unpalatable”. This is because many of the “surprises” over the last decade that they cite – the global financial crisis, the rise of Daesh/ISIS, the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the rapid spread of Ebola and Zika viruses, and the Brexit vote … Read More

Thinking about machines that “Think” - Ariadne

Jan 19, 2017

The biggest futurist thing for me this last year has been the progress and hype around artificial intelligence. Three quotes encapsulate the current state of artificial intelligence, and aspects of its future over the short term. Stephen Hawking made a Dickensian AI gambit with his quote:  Artificial Intelligence is “either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity” That just about sums up the whole field – no one really knows what will happen, but many gravitate toward one extreme or the other. A more accurate call on the current environment came from Maciej Cegłowski:  Machine learning is like a deep-fat fryer. If you’ve never deep-fried something before, you think to yourself: “This is amazing! I bet this would work on … Read More

Thinking about Machines that “Think” - Unsorted

Dec 22, 2016

The biggest futurist thing for me this year has been the progress and hype around artificial intelligence. Three quotes encapsulate the current state of artificial intelligence, and aspects of its future over the short term. Stephen Hawking made a Dickensian AI gambit with his quote:  Artificial Intelligence is “either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity” That just about sums up the whole field – no one really knows what will happen, but many gravitate toward one extreme or the other. A more accurate call on the current environment came from Maciej Cegłowski:  Machine learning is like a deep-fat fryer. If you’ve never deep-fried something before, you think to yourself: “This is amazing! I bet this would work on anything!” … Read More

After the Singularity - Ariadne

Nov 13, 2016

SingularityU’s summit happens in Christchurch this coming week. It’s purpose is to see how to “… thrive in an exponentially changing world” I’m not a fan of SingularityU. They seem overly enamoured with exponential change, rather than taking a more considered approach to looking towards the future. However, as an event to highlight emerging technological trends it is useful, and if it helps raise awareness that’s excellent. My question though is, what next? We stimulate interest, but then how do we capitalize on that? We are good at inviting in experts to give us their thoughts on where technologies are heading. I’ve heard several of these. They are like fishing boats, coming into port, off-loading their catch and then sailing back off into the sunset. It can be a good starting point, but we shouldn’t become dependent on … Read More

AI, why? - Ariadne

Oct 14, 2016

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is everywhere these days, especially in opinion pieces and reports to or from governments. It’s almost like you need IBM Watson Analytics to keep up with it all. Here’s a sampling from the last week or so. Venture Capitalist Marc Andreessen notes that it’s a new architecture not just a new feature. Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Baidu Research, suggests “AI is the new electricity”. Some of the big internet companies are funding a partnership to “formulate best practices on AI technologies, to advance the public’s understanding of AI”, and to discourage government’s over-regulating the field. Stanford’s AI100 project has just released its first report describing current developments and what may be feasible in 2030. Their main message is “don’t panic!”. Though one columnist has pointed out that the report panel … Read More

Cellular ag - Ariadne

Oct 12, 2016

A US meat company is now an investor in vegan burgers, and selling them alongside meat patties. That’s just one of the signals pointing to big changes in food production systems in affluent nations. Lab-grown meat gets the headlines, but burgers made from plant proteins are well ahead of that, and likely to have a much lower yuck factor. Red meat consumption is trending downward in many western countries, which is an important influencing factor.   Source: OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2016     Source: OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2016 [Per capita, China;’s consumption is low, but multiply those numbers by a billion, and that is still a lot of demand for red meat]. Fortune magazine has called some of these developments “cellular agriculture“, with farming moving from the field to the lab. Firms with … Read More

Electric dreams of sheep - Ariadne

Oct 05, 2016

At the moment there is more attention given to, and concern about, machines getting smarter than us. But there is also research going on which possibly, probably, definitely (depending on your source) will make us smarter, stronger, and/or creative. This short video interested me for two reasons.   Firstly, the suggestion that by tapping electronically into our dreams we could become more creative. That initially seems quite appealing. There are several “industries” promoting unlocking inner potential through enhancing connections with our subconscious. Both evidence-based and fact-less ones. By contemplative, pharmacological, and physical means. Legal and otherwise. But on reflection, Chun’s suggestion seems more like Dumbledore’s pensieve in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire “I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It … Read More

Adapting to disruptions - Ariadne

Sep 26, 2016

The Economist magazine and EY (the consultancy firm formerly known as Ernst & Young) have been producing a range of videos recently about industries facing significant change. This one about alternative energy is well worth a look (15 minutes of your time).     The two key points I took away from it are: “Big oil” is far from dead “Disruption” (one of the latest over-used phrases) doesn’t mean the decline and death of established industries. The video shows how at least some oil and other energy companies are adapting to different types of energy production through using their core capabilities in new ways. Such as moving from building floating oil rigs to floating wind farms. And, by shifting from energy production to energy management systems. We are seeing this in the transport sector too. While start-up and IT companies are … Read More