Future Tense

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


  • 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.

  • Waste management: ingenuity, mindset and working with nature

    Oct 10 2020

    Human civilization has a waste problem, and it’s likely to get worse as population levels grow and a consumerist mentality becomes the global norm. But there are many clever, practical ways to deal with waste, including bioremediation - a nature-inspired approach.

  • Cryonics: Dilemmas of the frozen dead

    Oct 03 2020

    Around the world a growing number of people are choosing cryonics. They opt to be frozen when they die on the speculative hope that one day advancing science will allow them to be ‘reanimated’ and brought back to life. The rising popularity of this new death ritual has led to the creation of a cryonics facility in regional Australia, and a handful of Australians have already signed up. Currently there is no existing science to prove that it will work, but even as an idea cryonics raises some imp...more

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

    Sep 27 2020

    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?

  • Reinventing research – Part One: future scenarios and moving away from the publish or perish mantra

    Sep 20 2020

    The research community is facing a “crisis of reproducibility”, according to the head of the Center for Open Science, Professor Brian Nosek. He says many of the traditional practices designed to make research robust, actually distort and diminish its effectiveness. In this episode, he details his ideas for reform. We also explore three plausible scenarios for how the academic sector could look in 2030.

  • Controlled Environmental Agriculture

    Sep 13 2020

    Controlled Environmental Agriculture promises to be cleaner and greener. It’s focussed on technology and it’s essentially about bringing food production closer to the point of consumption. We examine the potential and the pitfalls.

  • One big game of Monopoly

    Sep 06 2020

    Economists are predicting a further concentration of industries and sectors coming out of the COVID-19 crisis. What that will mean long-term remains uncertain. Meanwhile, in the tech sector, the giants of Silicon Valley are facing increased scrutiny. There are renewed calls in the US for tougher anti-trust regulation, but some doubt the effectiveness of such measures and argue instead for a wholesale rethinking of what we mean by competition.

  • Machine-enhanced decision making; and clapping, flapping drones

    Aug 30 2020

    Artificial Intelligence and other advanced technologies are now being used to make decisions about everything from family law to sporting team selection. So, what works and what still needs refinement? Also, they’re very small, very light and very agile - they clap as they flap their wings. Biologically-inspired drones are now a reality, but how and when will they be used?

  • The truth about carbon pricing and how to capture CO2

    Aug 23 2020

    Does carbon pricing work? It’s long been a contentious issue, but Australian researchers have crunched the data from 142 countries and now have what they reckon is the definitive answer. Also, are group purchasing plans the way to fund future renewable energy needs? And, the California research that could give new life to carbon, capture and storage.

  • Offshore architecture and marine urban sprawl

    Aug 16 2020

    There’s a new emphasis on land reclamation and building floating structures for everything from accommodation to marine farming to energy generation. Re-defining the use of the ocean is part of the emerging “blue economy” – one that can be both economically beneficial and environmentally responsible. How well can these often contradictory goals be reconciled?

  • Whatever happened to the idea of geoengineering the planet?

    Aug 09 2020

    Geoengineering is the deliberate manipulation of nature to lessen or reverse the impacts of global warming. Even its supporters concede it’s risky. A decade ago, the controversial technology was talked about as a “necessary evil” in the fight against climate change – a matter of when, not if. However, despite the continued heating of the planet, no large scale testing has yet been attempted. In this program we ask why? And where to from here?

  • “Reengineering Humanity” and the Arctic Code Vault

    Aug 02 2020

    The late Stephen Hawking famously warned that Artificial Intelligence might someday become so clever as to supersede humans. But academic and author, Brett Frischmann, has a different fear. He argues that human beings are starting to act like machines. That they’re being groomed to become more robotic in their behaviour and interactions. Also, why is the software development company GitHub interested in an old abandoned mineshaft in the very north of Scandinavia?

  • Just-In-Time or Just-In-Case economy?

    Jul 26 2020

    A little known management theory called Just-In-Time was originally devised to make supply chains in the Japanese car industry more efficient. In the second decade of the 21st century it underpins all economic and organisational activity right across the globe But a growing number of economists and business management experts believe the Just-In-Time philosophy has reduced the resilience of industry and influenced the casualisation of employment. And in a time of coronavirus, they argue, it now...more

  • Building greater efficiency into construction

    Jul 19 2020

    The global cement industry accounts for somewhere between five to eight per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. It’s vital for construction, but can it be made less harmful to the environment? In this program we explore a series of material innovations and building techniques designed to make the construction industry part of the solution to global warming, not just one of its causes.

  • Military spending rises as disarmament treaties falter

    Jul 12 2020

    Australia’s decision to increase defence spending is hardly unique. Global military expenditure in 2019 reached a new high at US$1.9 trillion. Experts warn of an increased risk of military miscalculation. Just as concerning, they say, has been the breakdown of traditional arms reduction and containment treaties. The biggest of them NewSTART is due for renewal early next year, but there are concerns a second term for President Trump could derail the agreement.

  • Artificial cities - from futuristic urban dreams to ghost towns

    Jul 05 2020

    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.

  • Is the future of live music an illusion?

    Jun 28 2020

    As Australia’s live music industry has been left decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic and unprecedented damage to venues from bushfires, we’re attending more online concerts, virtual gigs and streamed festivals than ever before. Technology is evolving at a rapid pace, pushed along by the demand for content and even giving rise to the reality that not all live musicians have to be living. But what does this mean for the future of live music? Can the digital and physical industries co-exist? And ...more

  • Attention and distraction

    Jun 21 2020

    How do we embrace the benefits of a world run on the power of attention/distraction without sending ourselves crazy or constantly diminishing our ability to get jobs done?

  • Toddlers and teens – better understanding their digital needs

    Jun 14 2020

    “Playing IT Safe” is a new resource to help pre-school children better understand the workings of the digital world. It also gives parents a way to structure the conversations they need to have around cyber safety. We also examine a pilot program for teenagers called Digital Compass. It’s been co-designed with Australian school students to help them as they navigate the challenges and ambiguities of our digital evolution.

  • The creeping militarisation of our police

    Jun 07 2020

    Police officers in many  western countries now dress like paramilitaries. Special police units are being trained and organised along military lines and issued with military-grade weapons. Is this creeping “militarisation” justified and what are the future implications for the effectiveness of policing in democratic societies?

  • “Lie Machines” in the age of Coronavirus

    May 31 2020

    Covid-19 is being weaponised in a new propaganda war against Western democracy, according to Oxford University’s Philip Howard. His new book shows that misinformation extends far beyond a few bad actors - there's a global industry behind the world’s problem with junk news and political misinformation. Also, we hear about new legislation that human rights groups say could expose Australian citizens to silent data requests from US authorities.

  • Saturated trees and carbon rationing

    May 24 2020

    New Australian research suggests trees may not be the carbon sponges we think they are. The findings compliment a larger international study that suggests the world’s major forests are saturated and will soon begin emitting, not absorbing carbon. Also, the Finish experiment where citizens are being given individual carbon allocations. It’s all about making carbon trading a very personal affair.

  • Locking down nature in order to liberate it

    May 17 2020

    There’s a serious campaign underway to have 30 per cent of the Earth designated as a giant conservation area. The target date is 2030. But that’s just the start. The scientists and environmentalists involved in the plan want to eventually lock down half the planet. It’s about protecting habitats and biodiversity. Cost and logistics are primary considerations. But they aren’t the only ones. Other issues at stake include increasing poverty and indigenous rights.

  • Insurance, resilience, risk

    May 10 2020

    The ongoing negative effects of climate change are putting stress on the global  insurance market.

  • Are governance issues failing the Himalayas?

    May 03 2020

    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.

  • Can we have economic growth without increased resource consumption?

    Apr 26 2020

    MIT research scientist, Andrew McAfee, argues we need to rethink our assumptions about capitalism and the environment.   Economic growth, he says, has been gradually decoupling from resource consumption. So, if capitalism survives this current crisis, we may need to adapt our understanding of the way it all works.  We also hear from Annmaree O’Keeffe, from the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands Program, about the value of Australia’s international public broadcasting effort now that the Pacific ...more

  • The ongoing fight to save public broadcasting

    Apr 19 2020

    There’s arguably never been a more important time for public broadcasting. Amid the rise of disinformation, low public trust and diminishing newsrooms, independent journalism has a vital role to play in informing democracy and providing a check on power. But right across the world, public broadcasting is under attack as budgets are being stripped back. In this episode, we question why?

  • Poetry in motion

    Apr 12 2020

    In which ways is poetry being used in the modern world? And can the very human quality of poetry survive the development of non-human poets?

  • The politics of happiness and wellbeing

    Apr 05 2020

    Many Australians are dissatisfied with the narrow economic focus of politics, research by the University of Melbourne’s ANDI Project confirms. They want the progress of their society to be measured by a much broader range of factors, like health, environmental standards and youth wellbeing. They’re not alone. Across the globe there’s a growing movement to move “beyond GDP”, to start planning for the future based on wider models of societal progress.

  • How far are we from a nuclear fusion future?

    Mar 28 2020

    The hope of nuclear fusion is the dream of a fossil-fuel free future - of limitless baseload power. Enthusiasts say fusion offers all the benefits of nuclear energy without the dangers. In theory and in practice fusion energy is already a reality, but getting the economics right is proving much more difficult than imagined.

  • Blockchain Democracy, business advocacy and the return of human curation

    Mar 21 2020

    Blockchain is a much-hyped technology that underpins the cryptocurrency Bitcoin.  Enthusiasts believe its potential to transform other areas of business is huge. But what if Blockchain is really just a solution in search of a problem? Also in this episode: are businesses becoming political advocates? And why are we seeing a return from algorithmic to human curation?

  • Technology-intensive campaigning and computational propaganda

    Mar 14 2020

    Political campaigning is fast changing in the digital era.  Elections are now being contested with data and algorithms.  Parties see it as a great opportunity. Others see it as a threat to democracy.  And the changes are now playing out in real time in the United States. Barack Obama was often referred to as the first Internet president, but Donald Trump is fast becoming the king of social media.

  • Shopping centres & the future for spending

    Mar 07 2020

    Australia is home to over 1,600 shopping centres, covering more than 26.5 million square metres. We are a nation that love to shop, but times are tough for these aging centres. Online retailers, limited millennial attention spans and old fashioned infrastructure are all putting the squeeze on the mall's market. This doesn't necessarily mean it's the end though, in fact shopping centres are evolving for the future - pulling out all the tricks, enticements and tech they can to ensure you keep sp...more

  • The Digital Welfare State

    Feb 29 2020

    A growing number of human rights academics and activists are worried that our notions of welfare in the democratic west are changing – and not for the better. They’re concerned that the tools of the digital era are being used to create a new form of welfare state directed against the poor and the disadvantaged, not in their interests.

  • Water banking, rain farming and other ways to safeguard against future drought

    Feb 22 2020

    Water banking involves the deliberate injection of surplus water into known aquifers. The idea is to repurpose the world’s many artesian basins as giant sustainable storage tanks - ones that can readily be drawn upon in times of drought. It’s just one of the ideas we explore in the second instalment of our two-part series on water conflict and management – the politics, the problems and the potential solutions.

  • Will the wars of the future really be fought over water?

    Feb 15 2020

    It’s a scarce resource and likely to get even more so. But is it causing an increase in political friction? The answer is yes… and no.

  • The competition delusion; and a call to nationalise big data

    Feb 08 2020

    Competition is often seen almost as a universal good. But economist Nicholas Gruen says a slavish adherence to making everything a competition is damaging our trust in public institutions. Also, the Belgian community trialling an ancient form of democracy. And if big data is made collectively, would nationalising it help to ensure the benefits are widely distributed?

  • Can the United Nations be reformed?

    Feb 01 2020

    The United Nations Secretariat is now one-year into a significant reform program aimed at making the organisation fit for purpose in the 21st Century. It’s being driven by Secretary General Antonio Guterres. In this program we look at what that package entails and what it might achieve. And we also examine the powerful role of the UN Security Council. Many believe it no longer reflects the realities of world power. So, can it be reformed?

  • Is the Liberal International Order in terminal decline?

    Jan 25 2020

    UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has issued a dire warning about the state of international cooperation. The long-standing international order, he says, is dividing and that threatens future global stability. So, are his concerns valid? How is the international order likely to change over coming decades? And what practical steps can be taken to reinforce the global rule of law?

  • Counterculture, consumerism and the far right

    Jan 18 2020

    Countercultural movements, like Occupy Wall Street, are meant to be future-focussed — revolutionary even. So why do they often fade into commercialism? Are they simply a function of consumer capitalism? If so, what future do they have? And must they always be progressive?

  • Pencil towers and issues around urban inequality and density

    Jan 11 2020

    Critics say that the proliferation of modern, wafer-thin skyscrapers are symbols of rising urban inequality. Also: Are levels of density in our cities making us ill? And what's the impact of short-term letting on urban affordability?

  • Future doom and the rose-coloured past

    Jan 04 2020

    Why do we see the past through rose-coloured glasses, but not the future? Psychologists tell us that human beings have a tendency to be fearful and pessimistic about the future, while simultaneously romanticising the past. If the theory is true, it might help explain the difficulties we often have in making informed decisions and effectively planning for the future.

  • Prescient Predictions: 1984; Brave New World; and Network

    Dec 28 2019

    The dystopian best-seller 1984 was published exactly seventy years ago. Its influence has been profound. But does it really speak to today’s politico-cultural environment?