Future Tense

A critical look at new technologies, new approaches and new ways of thinking, from politics to media to environmental sustainability.


  • Should we really aim for sustainable development?

    Sep 26 2021

    The terms “sustainability” and “sustainable development” are now so commonplace as to be meaningless – according to the sceptics. Worse still, a focus on sustainability, they say, can actually mask the very real problems we have in dealing with climate change and managing the world’s diminishing resources.

  • The Metaverse – turning life into one big online experience

    Sep 19 2021

    Facebook’s CEO has spoken about changing the social media platform into a “metaverse” company and he’s pledged billions to the cause. The metaverse is a term Silicon Valley uses for the next stage of the internet: a world in which all activities are conducted in an immersive Virtual Reality environment. But would Zoom-weary humans want to live in such a world? And is it really just a cover for surveillance capitalism?

  • Big tech’s big challenge

    Sep 12 2021

    New legislation aimed at curbing the power and influence of the big technology companies has been drawn up in both the United States and Europe. While in China, the government has already implemented sweeping changes to the way Chinese technology companies can operate in the PRC and beyond. So, have we now entered a new age of tech regulation?

  • Our long-term battle with short-term thinking

    Sep 05 2021

    Is our inability to think long-term influenced by the sheer number of threats we face? In times of crisis, it seems, human beings find it harder to think beyond their immediate difficulties. We investigate. Also, new research on why threats of punishment often fail to deter bad behaviour; and we get an update on Seabed2030, the global initiative to map the ocean floor.

  • Link rot, pay walls and the perils of preservation

    Aug 29 2021

    The cliché is that once something goes online, it’s up there forever. But the truth is that the Internet has a memory problem and some of what we’re losing – or could potentially lose – has significance and value. While archivists struggle with the challenge of preserving our digital record, the rise of pay walls present a particular problem.

  • AI inventors; “Affectivism” and the problem with Virtual Reality

    Aug 22 2021

    An Australian court has given inventor status to a piece of Artificial Intelligence. It’s big news in the tech sector, but does it have real world significance? Also, a new research discipline called "Affectivism" – what is it and how will it influence our understanding of human behaviour? And why one New York researcher has labelled Virtual Reality the “rich white kid with famous parents” who “never stops failing upward”.

  • Bitcoin: silly speculation or the future of finance?

    Aug 15 2021

    Almost every week, Bitcoin makes the headlines. Rollercoaster prices, environmental concerns and even the latest scams regularly make the news. But the sheer proliferation of stories surrounding Bitcoin has made it hard to understand what’s happening, let alone the technology itself. This week, Edwina Stott unpicks some of the biggest headlines in Bitcoin to get to the bottom of what’s really going on and what it means for the future.

  • A new alliance of democracies

    Aug 08 2021

    President Joe Bidden wants to establish a new alliance of democracies to counter the rise of authoritarianism. He’s planning a global summit for later this year. But is such an alliance achievable in a 21st century marked by heightened geo-economic interdependency? Or is it simply a nostalgic yearning for the past? And if such an alliance could be formed, is the United States really up to the job of leading it?

  • Outsourcing, automation and the messiness of global labour

    Aug 01 2021

    Automation and outsourcing are dirty words for many people in Western countries worried about their future employment prospects. Developing countries are seen to be the major beneficiaries of off-shore labour, with multinationals hoovering up increased profits. But the reality is a lot more complex and even messy. Now, even developing countries are starting to feel the pain.

  • The trouble with Tech-driven farming

    Jul 25 2021

    New technologies are transforming agriculture, but getting farmers to experiment with different tech combinations remains an issue. A technologically-infused approach can bring benefits, but it also carries risks. In the developing world it can sometimes undermine traditional farming practices and increase inequality.

  • Ransomware – a very 21st century crime

    Jul 18 2021

    The rush to go digital during Covid-19 has coincided with a marked rise in ransomware attacks. Some have a political dimension, some are merely opportunistic, but all make sound business sense from a criminal perspective. We discuss the ins and outs of ransomware operations and meet a man whose job is to negotiate with the criminals.

  • A non-proliferation treaty for fossil fuels

    Jul 11 2021

    It’s time to attack the “supply side” of fossil fuels, activists argue. And the best way to do that is by establishing a fuel non-proliferation treaty similar to the one used for nuclear weapons. But what would it entail and could it ever work? Also, the sticky relationship between online personalisation and consent; and a call for CEOs to become the next target of automation.

  • Litigating our way out of climate change

    Jul 04 2021

    Responses to climate change are often marked by frustration as much as fear. Those seeking to end our fossil-fuel dependency are increasingly turning to litigation to force the hands of companies and governments - often on human rights grounds. But do the courts have a legitimate role to play in leading the way? Or is this a form of judicial activism?

  • Some foresight about the future of foresight

    Jun 27 2021

    Trying to predict the future is a timeless and time-consuming pursuit. Artificial Intelligence is increasingly being enlisted to the cause, but so too are “super-forecasters” – a new coterie of individuals with remarkable predictive powers. But what are their limits and what does their rise say about the still popular notion of collective intelligence – the wisdom of the crowd? Future Tense looks at the changing role of humans in forecasting.

  • What role will hydrogen play in our future?

    Jun 20 2021

    Hydrogen is the energy du jour. It’s seen as a clean, smart alternative to fossil fuels, and major investments in its future are being made around the globe.

  • Rewilding: part two

    Jun 13 2021

    In this edition we examine the natural forces at play in Europe where abandoned farmland is increasingly being reclaimed by wildlife. We also hear about Rewilding in an urban context.

  • Rewilding to safeguard biodiversity

    Jun 06 2021

    Rewilding is a conservation approach based on the reintroduction of lost animal species to their natural habitats. Its original manifestation was controversial because it centred on apex predators like wolves. But the approach has matured and advocates believe it now has a crucial role to play in securing future biodiversity levels.

  • Is the process of ageing inevitable?

    May 30 2021

    Some animals, like sea sponges, can live for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. They also never get cancer. Understanding why that’s the case has led scientists to question conventional notions of ageing. The idea that future humans may never grow old now seems theoretically possible.

  • Is dumbness our destiny?

    May 23 2021

    Most of us are healthier, wealthier and better educated than ever before. We have greater access to knowledge and expertise than any previous generation. So, why do humans keep doing stupid things? And why is the world awash with conspiracy? Have we already passed “peak intelligence”? And if so, what can we do to ensure a smarter future?

  • When satellites collide…

    May 16 2021

    There’s been a huge increase in the number of satellites orbiting Earth with private companies and governments planning to launch hundreds more. Near-Earth orbit is already crowded, and the risks posed by space junk are increasing. The consequences could be catastrophic.

  • Teaching AI to fly like a bee

    May 09 2021

    Scientists in the UK have developed a form of artificial intelligence that mimics the brain functions of a honeybee. The results promise to make drones and other flying craft far more manoeuvrable and crash-proof. Also, the dream of a “female internet”; and why mathematician, Hannah Fry, thinks all technologists should take a Hippocratic oath.

  • The power of storytelling – a cautionary tale

    May 02 2021

    Stories like opinions have become a necessity of modern life.  Everybody is encouraged to have an opinion and everybody – in the vernacular of countless motivation speakers – is encouraged to be the “hero of their own story”. But are we in danger of making too much of them? If the story becomes the central device for much of our communication, do we risk losing our sense of objective reality?

  • Are Sovereign Wealth Funds the best way of safeguarding the future?

    Apr 25 2021

    Sovereign Wealth Funds come in all shapes and sizes. They act as government-backed investment vehicles. They’re used to fund specific social projects and to act as a nest-egg for future generations. There are currently around 150 in the world with global assets worth in excess of $USD 9 trillion. But are they worth the investment?

  • Enterprising ways to make and shift electricity

    Apr 18 2021

    Imagine if you could use your own body heat to recharge your smart phone? That’s just one of the ways scientists are trying to decentralise energy production. They also have an eye on new means of power distribution, including using laser beams instead of lines and poles.

  • Locking down nature in order to liberate it

    Apr 11 2021

    There’s a serious campaign underway to have 30 per cent of the Earth designated as a giant conservation zone. The target date is 2030. The eventual aim is to lock down half the planet. It’s about protecting habitats and biodiversity. But, in so doing, what are the risks for indigenous communities and the poor?

  • The Privacy Paradox

    Apr 04 2021

    How many private details are you revealing online – and how valuable is that information? And more importantly what steps can you take to protect your data?

  • The strange case of the trees that grow metal and how to harvest them

    Mar 28 2021

    Agromining is a new process for extracting large quantities of metals such as cobalt and nickel from the sap and leaves of rare plants known as hyperaccumulators. Australian scientists have already established a test farm in Malaysia and it’s hoped the technology will one day provide poor communities with a new source of income, while also helping to rehabilitate former mining sites. Also, why do some people get sick after using Virtual Reality and is that holding back the technology? And a new ...more

  • How much change can we expect as airlines once again take to the skies?

    Mar 21 2021

    As the global aviation industry is slowly coming out of its enforced hibernation, all aspects of the business are up for a rethink - from international routes, to aircraft size, even the design and function of passenger terminals. Some analysts see a unique opportunity to reset the way we travel, and to bring the industry into the 21st century. But there are strong headwinds to navigate.

  • Chinese technology is advancing, but it’s a long way from global domination

    Mar 14 2021

    The “catch-up and surpass” trope now dominates discussion about Chinese technology. It’s very black and white - China is rising and the rest (mainly the US and the West) are falling behind. It’s all painted as an inevitability. But the reality is much more complicated. Propaganda isn’t strategy. Chinese technology firms are beginning to lead the way in certain social media areas, but they’re also coming up against cultural and manufacturing limits more broadly.

  • Emptying the oceans

    Mar 07 2021

    It’s estimated illegal fishing now accounts for the capture of one in every five fish worldwide. It’s a massive problem. But the biggest threat to fish stocks comes not from illegal activity, but from mainstream fishing industries. In particular, the large national fishing fleets that traverse our oceans. A major international study of marine species has found over 33 per cent of fish species are being over-exploited. 60 per cent are being fished to their maximum level. So, can we bring over-fis...more

  • Wellbeing and COVID; the problem with Wikipedia; and the future of policing

    Feb 28 2021

    Early in 2020 we looked at New Zealand’s Wellbeing Budget initiative. That was just as the world was going into COVID lockdown. So how did the initiative handle the economic stresses caused by the pandemic. We get an update from Christoph Schumacher. We also look at some of the attribution problems faced by Wikipedia; and Elisabeth Braw from the American Enterprise Institute explains why she thinks the future of policing lies in following a model laid down by Napoleon.

  • Brain-Machine-Interfaces - brain manipulation or brain control?

    Feb 21 2021

    Brain-Machine-Interface technology is only in its infancy, but scientists believe it may one day allow the severely disabled to perform everyday tasks using brain signals to power artificial limbs. But some US tech companies have more ambitious interests. They envision a future where BMI will allow them to read people’s thoughts; and where humans will use mind power to interact with their digital devices. It’s an exciting field, but one fraught with ethical concerns.

  • Hype versus reality – getting some perspective on the future of cars

    Feb 14 2021

    From ridesharing to electric cars to self-driving vehicles the line between application, potential and promise is often very blurry. In this episode we take a reality check on the future direction of the automotive industry.

  • Ecocide: making environmental damage an international crime

    Feb 07 2021

    French President, Emmanuel Macron, activist Greta Thunberg and even the Pope have all given support for the creation of a new crime called “ecocide” - the deliberate, large-scale destruction of the environment. Campaigners argue the new crime should be prosecuted through the International Criminal Court, but there are political and legal hurdles to jump. Also, design expert, Craig Bremner, on how the pandemic has liberated design from the shackles of consumer capitalism.

  • Geopolitics in a post fossil-fuel world

    Jan 31 2021

    What will the global political landscape look like when the world’s dependency on fossil fuels is finally over? Adjustments are already being made, but for so-called “petrostates” like Saudi Arabia and Russia, the prospects look particularly bleak. Experts warn of new inequalities and shifting power dynamics. They also warn of a fall in available energy levels as nations transition to renewables.

  • Reinventing research – Impact, outputs, and the US National Research Cloud

    Jan 23 2021

    There’s bipartisan support in the United States for the establishment of a national AI research cloud. So, how would academics benefit and what role would big tech play in its operations? Also, problems with academic inclusivity in the developing world, and could alternative channels of distribution soon rival the primacy of peer-reviewed journals?

  • Are governance issues failing the Himalayas?

    Jan 16 2021

    The Himalayas are sometime called the earth’s “third pole”. They’re a vital source of water for a large chunk of the world’s population. But the local, national and international systems put in place to protect and manage human development in this vital ecosystem are failing. In this episode, Matt Smith travels to the Himalayas for Future Tense to gauge the size of the problem and possible solutions for safeguarding its future.

  • Artificial cities - from futuristic urban dreams to ghost towns

    Jan 09 2021

    When it’s completed the futuristic city of Neom will sit in the Saudi Arabian desert, a US$500 billion dollar metropolis, thirty times larger than New York. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman believes the project will transform his kingdom into the innovation centre of the world, but critics say it risks further widening inequality and dividing the country in two. Also, what’s to become of China’s “ghost cities”? Built for future expansion, they now haunt the urban landscape.

  • Designing technology to increase inclusion for the disabled

    Jan 02 2021

    Inclusive design isn’t just about meeting the needs of the disabled, it’s about opening-up the possibility of creating better products and services for everyone.

  • Reflections on the smart phone

    Dec 26 2020

    Smart phones have become an essential part of our lives. But are they so familiar, we sometimes underestimate their importance? The role they’ve played in helping to shape our interests and interactions?

  • How globalisation and technology are changing the nature of storytelling

    Dec 19 2020

    Film, television and theatre have long been seen as markers of community and national identity – we speak of American sitcoms, British theatrical traditions and French cinema, for instance. But in an increasingly interconnected digital world do visual arts still play a role as cultural identifiers? Does it make sense anymore to talk of an “Australian” film or even a “Hollywood” blockbuster? And if not, is the notion of telling “our stories” a thing of the past?

  • Our understanding of AI and the value of a national plan

    Dec 12 2020

    What do ordinary Australians know about artificial intelligence? Are they hopeful or fearful about the way it's being deployed? In this program we hear about the latest public opinion research and find out how other countries are coordinating and prioritising AI development. Also, the mysterious online platform that seemed to defy Beijing’s Great Firewall and then vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared.

  • The New Laws of Robotics and what they might mean for AI

    Dec 05 2020

    Way back in 1942 science fiction writer Isaac Asimov created the Three Laws of Robotics. They were written into a short story called “Runaround”. Their influence on technological development has been significant and long lasting Now, legal academic and AI expert Frank Pasquale has expanded that list. Building on Asimov’s legacy, Professor Pasquale’s four new laws of robotics are designed to ensure that the future development of artificial intelligence is done in the interest of humanity.

  • Plastic past, plastic present, plastic future

    Nov 28 2020

    Over the past two decades we’ve become increasingly sensitive to the overuse of plastic and more concerned about its environmental impact – but to what effect? According to the World Wildlife Fund, we’ve actually used more plastic since the year 2000 than in all the decades leading up to that date. And previous estimates for the amount of plastic in our oceans now appear far too conservative. Feel-good campaigns aside, the signs for the future are far from promising. As part of Radio National's ...more

  • Cycling into the future; and turning the gig economy back into a sharing economy

    Nov 21 2020

    It’s easy to forget that the “gig economy” was once universally referred to as the “sharing economy”. So what went wrong and is it possible to bring back that original promise of flexibility, autonomy and respect? Also, building a genuine cycling culture - the Dutch example. And how to make voice recognition technology better at understanding the voices of children.

  • Urban pandemic – isolation and inequality

    Nov 14 2020

    Speculation about the future of the city centre started as soon as the world began locking down for COVID-19. Much of it has been focussed on the economics of “working from home”, but what have we learnt about urban isolation and inequality from this time of pandemic?

  • The elusive edge of Innovation

    Nov 07 2020

    Are entrepreneurs the great innovators we’re told they are? What if the ideal of the lone genius is simply a myth? Innovation is a buzz term that’s become so over-used as to be almost meaningless. It’s time to be more innovative in our understanding of innovation.

  • Bringing greater clarity to the laws of space

    Oct 31 2020

    Commercial and military interest in space is growing exponentially. More and more countries and companies are keen to make money from space-related activities. They are also keen to protect their interests. There are internationally agreed rules regulating activity in space, but there’s also conjecture and confusion about how and when they should be applied. In this episode we look at efforts to better map what is, and is not, permissible in the world above our sky.

  • Wave energy and artificial photosynthesis: the tech that takes time

    Oct 24 2020

    Australia has long been at the forefront of wave-energy development, but the industry has struggled to find its place in the world of renewables. Can it ever hope to compete with solar Also, Cambridge University’s Erwin Reisner on global efforts to replicate the energy producing power of plants.

  • Seawater greenhouses; the “insect apocalypse”; and zero carbon flight

    Oct 17 2020

    Imagine greenhouses that produce food using just sunshine and sea-water. In Australia and Africa they’re already a reality. We talk to one of the pioneers of the concept. Also, the latest research on the so-called “insect apocalypse”. And, the new aviation prize open to any enterprising spirit able to cross the Atlantic in a plane powered entirely by renewable energy.