Rules for a new world
A new applied science is being created, a discipline so new it hasn’t been named yet. Rachel Curtis reports.
Distinguished Professor Genevieve Bell is founding this new applied science around the management of cyber-physical systems.
The reality is this class of objects requires something new and something that doesn’t exist yet.
She heads the ANU Autonomy, Agency and Assurance Institute, known as 3Ai, where researchers from various disciplines are working to build capacity for the future in the form of a new body of knowledge carried by graduates operating into a broader socio-economic environment.
For instance, how is the community going to ‘manage the machines’? What are the critical questions to ask when designing or regulating these systems?
“The collection of technologies we are currently calling artificial intelligence constitute the next industrial revolution, where rapid convergence into cyber-physical systems is having an unprecedented effect on humanity through deep economic, social and cultural shifts,” Bell says.
This so-called fourth industrial revolution, characterised by emerging technologies, throws up a host of technical and social questions.
“We need to manage the machines and our intention at 3Ai is to ensure that, unlike with the first industrial revolutions, we influence and shape the emerging technologies early on to reflect our humanity, culture and values,” she says.
Bell says ANU is building an applied science from scratch that will allow us to understand cyber-physical systems like drones, autonomous vehicles, robots or even smart elevators, in a new way.
“Those systems all require something new,” she says. “It’s not going to be enough to have computer scientists and electrical engineers, we need both … The reality is this class of objects requires something new and something that doesn’t exist yet.”
Manager Thomas Biedermann says the Institute aims to create a framework to identify inequalities in current and future systems.
“We tend to think of computers and machines as being neutral and fair and impartial but machines are built, trained, developed and integrated by people who have certain characteristics,” he says.
“It’s fairly easy to introduce bias in the algorithms, the way they are deployed, the way they are trained.
“One way to try to fight this inequality is to make sure these types of issues are front of mind for the people who are developing them.”
The 3Ai team will examine the values and cultures embedded in future technologies.
“One of the reasons for setting up this institute in Australia is to see: what are the kinds of Australian values and cultures that we want to see embedded in these future systems,” Research Lead Dr Katherine Daniell says.“Will they perpetuate inequalities, say between men and women or between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people? How might these new technologies and algorithms be created in ways that don’t perpetuate inequalities but rather bring people back together?”
What we’re trying to do here is build a new applied science to help manage the machines.
Research Fellow Dr Caitlin Bentley says the team is in a position to create a body of knowledge for this uncharted territory.
“A lot of academics have been pointing out these flaws and issues, but now we’re in a position to start doing something about them,” she says.
“So we’re trying to, not only train academics and experts to think about these things, but to actually go out and influence technologists, managers and governments to fix those issues.”
Bell, one of the world’s top technologists, brings 20 years’ experience in Silicon Valley to the ANU to lead top researchers from around the world with a range of disciplines.
Drawing from world-class anthropologists, engineers, sociologists, physicists, geographers and computer scientists, the Institute will engage with philosophical, public policy and economic issues from cross-disciplinary perspectives.
Biedermann, who has worked with the French Government in scientific diplomacy in the US and Australia, says the team is creating a new discipline.
“What we’re trying to do here is build a new applied science to help manage the machines - which is really about creating a new body of knowledge, engaging with a community of stakeholders and transmitting that knowledge to educate disciplinary experts who can design, create, integrate, commercialise, regulate these cyber-physical systems,” he says.
Bentley is interested in how the new applied science will incorporate alternative and marginalised voices that have frequently been missing from mainstream discourses.
One of the projects I’ve been involved in is focusing on how artists are using these new technologies to create a sense of wonder or to enrich people’s lives in ways that hadn’t been a primary focus.
“In the past, it may have been about making money, making things more efficient, reducing people’s work, things like that, whereas we’re trying to see it as, how do we actually improve people’s lives by prioritising things that Australians value.”
Daniell says she is focused on the social goals of the future.
“With the coming sort of industrial revolution, unless we are really clear about how technology and these new cyber-physical systems are going to change the world in particular ways, we won’t be able to necessarily fight against them and coming inequalities and environmental issues that have come with all of our previous revolutions in technological development,” she says.
“So I think what’s really exciting about this is getting on board early to start to try to solve and think about what the problems might be and ask the right questions before they become problems,” she says.
“It’s really rare that you can ask those questions before things have happened and before the problems are really entrenched.”
The 3Ai is now preparing to deliver its first postgraduate education package in the new applied science in 2019.