Every Student Podcast: Genevieve Bell
ANU Professor Genevieve Bell joins the Every Student Podcast to discuss emerging artificial intelligence and its impact on society.
ANU Professor Genevieve Bell joins the Every Student Podcast to discuss emerging artificial intelligence and its impact on society.
Hi, I'm Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education. Welcome to Every Student, the podcast where I get to introduce you to some of our great leaders in education. Today I am in conversation with Professor Genevieve Bell who joins me by phone from the ANU in Canberra where she is a Distinguished Professor and Director of the Autonomy Agency and Assurance Institute. Genevieve is a highly regarded cultural anthropologist, technologist and futurist. She is also currently a vice-president and senior fellow at Intel.
Genevieve, thanks for having a conversation with us today.
It's my pleasure to be here Mark.
Tell me a little bit about your childhood and upbringing. Hardly typical, you spent a good deal of time living in remote Aboriginal communities of Australia?
Absolutely I always say I had an unusual childhood, so I am the daughter of an anthropologist and my mother Diane Bell was spending most of her time in the 70s and 80s in and out of central Australia so my brother and I were with her. I spent much of my childhood moving between the anthropology department at places like the Australian National University and then a whole collection of different Aboriginal settlements in central and northern Australia so it was an extraordinary childhood. There were periods of time when that meant I got to be with people, on their country, telling me stories about that country and showing me at a level of grace that I'm not sure I'd ever get to recapture and it was extraordinary.
Do you think when you reflect on an educational experience which was certainly atypical and lacked the rigidity and had a level of flexibility that clearly most people don't experience, to what extent did that prepare you for your future academic career and your future thinking about education?
I feel like I should tell you that you're leading the witness there Mark. For me, the virtue of the set of life experiences that I had were that for me it has left me both with a deep appreciation of the notion of both theory and practice. So the idea that it is good to understand how things work in theory, it is also good to see how they work in practice and in reality. And I think being able to have those embodied experiences changed the way I read things and it changed the way I thought about things. One of the pieces to me that was so abundantly clear both because of that childhood and after spending twenty years in Silicon Valley, is that it is really easy to forget that we learn not just through reading and through classrooms but through experiences of our bodies, right? We are embodied learners, humans, whether it is the act of doing things or the act of other people responding to what we are doing, there is a feedback loop there - and learning the way different places look and different rules work and it feels different - for me that has always left me with an appreciation of both the way knowledge is built and transmitted but also how we live it. I think I was incredibly lucky to have that kind of set of encounters as a kid and mum was always really clear that this wasn't without having to think about it. She would at the end of almost every day of my childhood ask: "What did you learn today? What surprised you today?" She was very clear about making sure both to drive our curiosity and to help us articulate what was happening around us not just experience it, but be able to talk about it and I think those have been invaluable tools that have served me well ever since then.
You have built a career based around curiosity and asking questions and observing. You go from that experience and you study in America, you do a PhD at Stanford and you end up at Intel and working in the heart of Silicon Valley. Tell us about the step to be working in such a complex, demanding, and possibly an environment not that open and sympathetic to women and/or Australians? How did you end up at Intel?
This is the bit where I have to parenthetically say that my career is not a good template and nor should I be offering career advice. Because I went to Stanford to do my PhD. My research at that point was in Native American studies and I was really interested in the use of education, in fact, as a form of both cultural control and cultural transmission so I had studied a boarding school for native kids in the United States that had operated in the 19th and early 20th century. So I was an area expert and I had spent a bunch of time with people who had been to those schools, that was kind of my focus, so ending up at Intel was, to say the least, unexpected. I often joke that it is a really long way from Ali Curung to Silicon Valley, even via Stanford. And the reality is I wasn't looking for a job in industry. I wanted to be an academic, I liked the classroom, I liked the rigour of research and I loved teaching. But I also was in Silicon Valley in the 1990s and that was the period of time when we were building out the web, the internet was really scaling up, there was a lot of technological transformation. Everyone was in the tech world, I really wasn?t but I knew it was around me and I met a man in a bar. I don't know how else to put it than that. I met a man in a bar. The bar was called Pearl's on Ramona Street in Palo Alto and he introduced me to people in Silicon Valley, they introduced me to other people, it kind of went on for a bit. There were many free lunches, which, when you're a recovering graduate student is excellent, and one day I met the people at Intel. And they offered me a job and I told them "no", I couldn't imagine what I would do for a company like that. To their credit, they could see a path for me there more than I could and they pursued me for nearly six months continuously asking me "Would I join the company?" and I kept going "I don't know what I would do there". I think I realised one day in that process - the closest non-religious girls like me get to having an epiphany - I woke up one morning and realised that I kept thinking Intel wasn't really a choice. In fact, it was a choice and there was a moment where I could say to myself:
"What does it mean to be an anthropologist and a social scientist and someone who cares about transformation and change, and where should I do that work? Sure I can ply my trade in the university, I know exactly how to do that, I have been trained for that, but if what I know how to do is ask hard questions and open up conversations and see the world differently maybe there are other places that need that."
And I looked at Intel and at that point we're talking about 1998 - gosh that is a long time ago - Intel was then, as it is then now, in the business of making microprocessors. And microprocessors were the backbone building block of the internet and the web, so a company like Intel in 1998 was effectively building the future. It was a company - as you kind of flagged in the question - entirely full of engineers and computer scientists and marketers. They had this really American centric view and this really tech-driven view and I - naively and with a great deal of hubris - thought to myself "Well, ok then. If I can make a difference inside that company, that would actually make a difference at a scale that I couldn't even fantasise about as an academic."
So, having said no to them for six months I called them back and said "When can I start?" and because it was Intel and industry they were like "two weeks would be good". I took a deep breath and quit my academic job and moved state and put all of my things in boxes and started a new job, in an area I knew nothing about, in a city I had never lived in, with people I didn't know. And it was the smartest decision I think I've ever made.
So many fascinating things about Intel as an organisation; the work they have done, the products they have done and of course the origins of Moore's Law, in a sense, that sense of the rapid change in development and speed of technological change has its origins at Intel. But it is also seen as an organisation that has changed itself over and over again reflecting the change that technology has bought. Tell us about being a questioner and a challenger within an organisation like Intel. I suppose I am looking for parallels back into an education system where we could be pretty set in our ways and perhaps we look pretty similar to the way we looked a generation or two ago. At Intel, you were involved in driving change and thinking through what the future demands are going to be.
Yes, it was fascinating. I think one of the things about being a real outsider in circumstances like that is that it lets you ask a series of questions that insiders don't even see as questions. For me one of the foundational questions had to do with the premise on which Intel was founded; Moore's Law. So Intel, as a company, one of the things that it does is make microprocessors and one of its founders is a man named Gordon Moore. Way back in 1965, Gordon Moore predicted that transistors, the building blocks of computers, would halve in size and double in density every eighteen months to two years and halve in price. That is a big mouthful, but what it basically says is that the guts of computers were going to get much smaller and much faster and much cheaper on a knowable cadence. If you could hold that law to be true, what it would mean is that technology could evolve quite rapidly; that each generation of technology could get smaller and more powerful and the price envelope would diminish so that you could have more and more stuff doing more and more things. It was a powerful observation that Gordon made back in 1965, at the time he said this will only last ten years. It has lasted considerably longer than that. But when I got to Intel I went "and then what?".
The first person I ever said that to looked at me and went, "What?"
"It halved in size and doubled in density and then what do people do with it?"
He looked at me and said "What kind of question is that?" And I am like "Um..."
I thought it was a good question and he was like: "It will just do it again in eighteen months' time."
I remember thinking "Oh, I see. The logic of this company is entirely figured around the system that we build, not what people do with it."
And at that moment in time, I realised that one of my jobs inside the company was always going to be to ask about both the "so what?" and "who is actually our audience?"
And not just "who is our audience?", but "who are we touching and what is it that we want to have happen in that relationship?".
I used to joke that my job was to haunt the company with people - and not the people who worked in the company but the people that would ultimately use that technology or be impacted by it. What it meant to drive change there was to constantly have to ask uncomfortable questions, questions that even as you said them you didn't sound particularly smart because everyone around you just looked at you. But I think in terms of what it meant to be what Americans would have called a 'change agent' at Intel was that it helped to have a point of view, it helped if that point of view was informed by a world view and for me by a moral impulse that the world should be better when I leave it than as I found it and that means making it better for more people than myself. And so for me, that meant always asking the question about where is this technology going and what is it doing ? and not in a technical sense but in a social, cultural, human sense. Asking that question often was risky, it was hard, people didn't always know how to hear that question and they certainly didn't know how to hear me asking that question. It meant being both a mix of persistent - not patient but persistent, I think of those as being slightly different things - but persistent and willing to keep thinking that, while asking the question was uncomfortable, the consequences of not asking the question were worse.
Do you think as you reflect on it, I keep bringing it back into thinking through a school setting where you have got institutions, long-established, great strength of the status quo, great belief in the work that we are currently doing now. Do you believe that those skills of an anthropologist; asking questions about why we do the things that we do now, what the real meaning is behind what you are seeing happening and what the implications of that are, do you think we underplay and underestimate the importance of those skills just as we are riding along in the daily demands and pressures of everyday life and work?
Absolutely Mark. Part of the way institutions maintain themselves is through stability and status. It is the resistance to change, because all the systems, what economists and public policy people would call a sunk cost, they are not things that we necessarily think about. The way schools are physically built predetermines the whole way about how education can be delivered within them, the way the walls are, the way rooms are sized, the kind of things that are in them, the things that are possible in them already establish what an education, or what the possibilities might be, the possibility space. And those are buildings that took often a little while to build and they cost a lot of money and changing them is hard. We then have faculty who was hired for particular skills we have invested time in them and changing that, similarly difficult. There are pieces that militate towards stability, where the social scientist in me wants to ask the question is: "That is all well and good, but what has changed in the world that we may need to think differently about? What is the timeframe in which we are operating?"
You said something fourteen months ago that has been rattling around in my head ever since. You were standing on a stage in the Carriagehouse [sic] in Sydney, and you said: "Next year we'll be taking students into our primary school, into first year, and when they graduate it will be 2030." You stood there and you said: "I can't afford not to be thinking about what the world looks like in 2030." And I thought to myself that is an extraordinary statement that in fact in order to deliver something now, you have to have a point of view about the future and I think one of the challenges we have in thinking about the future is we often project now out to that - it will be like this but more blinky lights.
Let's talk about that a bit more. As you know you, have really helped our thinking on it at the department, we have been working on this project for Education in a Changing World and the lack of certainty and insight around what that world of 2032-2045 looks like. There's just a lot of uncertainty so it is easy just to sit where you are now and extrapolate a bit, rather than really try and think deeply about the bets that we want to take or the risk that we want to manage as far as preparing young people for that world. There is one argument that says the rate of change that we have seen - this is an extrapolation of Moore's Law - that is just going to accelerate further, so how do we think through as educators and those of us involved in leading schools or leading systems, how do we think through reaching that gap of twelve years or fifteen years to that future world and think through the things that we need to be considering and doing now?
Gosh, that must be such a daunting question. I find it daunting even from where I sit, of trying to imagine what is technically possible. I have always thought that there were a couple of things that have to matter in all of that. One is that whilst technology changes quite rapidly there are things about which humans care that change far more slowly and being able to tell the difference between those things is a critical first step. So what is the difference between what changes technically and what changes far more slowly, culturally and socially? We may have an enormous amount of technology but humans still like to tell stories - the way we tell them is different than ten, twenty, thirty years ago but we are still storytellers at heart - so how do you tell the difference between what the technology propels us to do and the things that we care about over a much longer time period.
I often joke that I am a child of the seventies in Australia so I grew up with early colour TV. My parents' generation are the ones who remembered the introduction of television and that means TV is 60 years old, little more little less, we are still arguing about its impact on us. It has been around for a while and we're still talking about whether it is good or bad, should we have more American or less, we're in a golden age of it, all that stuff. So "imagine if the technology stabilises" is probably already a thing we should move past, but if that is the case and the technology doesn't stabilise, the really interesting challenge we have is this one about how do we give people enough tools and enough context around those tools that they can rearrange them where necessary. So rather than saying "here is the sum of all things that you need to know and the order in which you will deploy them", is it possible to say "here is a set of questions you can always ask that will help you get somewhere?" So rather than thinking it's a problem that you need to solve, maybe the approach is to say "what are the questions we should ask?"
To me there's something about how do we start to imagine, there is always going to be a set of tools that you are going to need, or at least I would like to imagine there will be. We need to have literacy skills and numeracy skills, you will need to be able to work out "how do letters string together into words?". Even if machines are doing an enormous amount of work in the background, we're still going to be able to have to read signs that tell us certain kind of things and engage with the world through a set of building blocks. The challenge that comes in a system that is designed to be in increments of six years, twelve years, how do you stage that education in such a way that the pieces can be rearranged later or that the through-line makes it possible to use those tools later? I know that sounds really abstract but we are in the process here at the Institute of, we have our first students arriving in February 2019, they will turn up here at the ANU for a brand new master's, in a discipline that doesn't yet have a name, in an institute that has a mouthful of a name. My team and I are in the process of trying to build out "What does that year worth of curriculum look like?" One of the things that we have realised is that in fact what we were doing was giving people a set of critical questions that they could ask of almost anything or a set of critical propositions that would let them see the world differently.
"What were their framing tools?" if you want to think about it that way. Rather than saying "here are the facts you need to know", it was "here are the propositions that will help you get to possible facts". I don't quite know what that looks like in a primary and secondary educational system, we sometimes call it critical theory or critical thinking but that also means how do you get teachers and parents as well as kids, comfortable with the idea that what they are learning now is just a piece of the puzzle and not everything? And my suspicion is that is as hard for parents and teachers as it is for kids themselves.
It is very challenging for both teachers and parents, intimidated by the technology, exploring the technology themselves and it is all just so incredibly new. I've been reflecting on almost like the last decade of technological development. We love the bright, the shiny, the new, we sign up for online news, we download the apps, we love our phone, we sign up for Netflix, we sign up for Spotify, we give our data to Facebook, but...
Some of us.
Yeah, only about two billion. But the implication...
But Mark, I'm going to push you there.
It is important not to normalise the experiences that you and I have as people who live in big cities with a lot of infrastructure and who have personal resources. The whole world isn't on those platforms, even in Australia, and the experience of Facebook or of Netflix if you were in Walgett versus Sydney is a very different thing.
Yes, true, I think that's right. The thing that I'm wrestling with a bit is that in our rush to embrace the new where we can, the full implications of that have only become evident some years after. So what can we learn from our history and our experience? It is not as though people of my generation have been experienced with these tools, they have been new for us as they have been for everyone, what do we learn from our rush to embrace? The consequences that we can see with the global Facebook evidence that has come to light in the last year or so, and so how do we prepare young people for that? And I think that the answer that I hear from you is it is not trying to provide solutions in a world that we can't quite anticipate, but what are the robust questioning framework that we can develop? How do we help prepare them to critically engage with whatever the circumstances might be that they are dealing with a decade or two from now?
And it is not like those are impossible questions to teach. Some of those are really simple like "who built this?" and "where does it come from?".
And "who is paying?"
And "what's the world it imagines?" and "who isn't in that world and why?"
Those are questions, they are scientific method questions in some ways and questions we know how to stage out of history and philosophy and economics, they're questions in sociology and psychology and anthropology. But they are in fact the questions out of, I would have said, some of the STEM disciplines, where you have a hypothesis, and data and a test. The sort of things that say "right, who do we think is making money here, and why does that matter?" or "where did this come from and does it have built into it a world view that isn't ours, what are the consequences of that and who might not be in that world?".
How do we think through the STEM question? There are myriad of STEM taskforce, STEM projects, we have reports that come out that talk about declining levels of students doing advanced maths and science in our schools, concerns about participation rates of girls in those subjects. At times STEM can be seen as a panacea - an answer - that people advance for some of these questions. How seriously do you think we should be taking the STEM challenge and how do you articulate that challenge?
Gosh, another interesting and complicated question. I was lucky enough to go to the US for my undergraduate degree and I was lucky enough to go to amazing state schools in Australia before I left and for me, both of those educational experiences was about portfolio of content and disciplines that I was exposed to. I did a lot of STEM stuff in Australia when I was in high school and I was good at it - I didn't love it but I was good at it. I went to a liberal arts college in America, a university that was a broad-based education, I did a little bit of everything. It is very clear to me as I have charted out the ark of my career, I have been incredibly well prepared by the fact that I have a little bit of each one of those things. I have a basic understanding of how maths works, I have an understanding of how certain forms of scientific knowledge are produced, I also have an ethnographic imagination and I know enough about history to be dangerous. For me the piece is to say, "it is absolutely the case that we are going to need scientists, we also need engineers, we also need technologists, we also need historians and economists and philosophers and artists and poets". The reality is what any one of those disciplines should look like in the 21st century ought to feel different than it did in the 20th. We talk about what is going to be an engineer, my concern is sometimes when we talk about STEM we talk about it like it were a stable body of knowledge and we know exactly what we are referring to. My concern when we talk about it too is that we tend to forget that it is most valuable when it is in dialogue with lots of other disciplinary traditions and theories and that it is not about we should have art in order that art can fuel STEM - it is that we should have art because it is a different way of seeing the world and a different way of making sense of things and it will open up possibilities that we need to have in the world. We can't have a world entirely full of engineers and mathematicians that would be not a good look.
It wouldn't be dire, it just wouldn't be a good look.
What about the gender challenge around STEM participation and engagement?
What's interesting is that it's uneven. If you do a click down on the data about who participates in STEM subjects, remember we are talking science, technology, engineering and maths, of course, the complication there is that each one of those things is not really the same as the others, if you look across them it is uneven. There may not be as many girls doing physics in Year 11 and 12 as there are boys, but by the time you get to university, there are a lot more girls - women - doing bioengineering than say civil engineering. What is fascinating to me is that sitting underneath what appears to be one set of statistics is actually a great deal of variation. We know there are multiple universities around the world that have managed to get full participation from female students, from kids who come from economically disenfranchised backgrounds or different ethnicities and different lived experiences. There are certainly ways of making it work so if it isn't working in your institution, it's not you have to throw up your hands and go it?s impossible. The reality is lots of people have worked out how to crack that piece open. Part of it has to do with who's teaching, part of that has to do with who are being presented as role models, who's being presented as career opportunities and no small part of it has to do with what are the messages that come more tacitly; what's in our movies, what's on TV, what's in our games, what's the stuff around you, how many times do you hear the operating assumption being a scientist is a 'he'? There is a bit that says this isn't just a matter of what's in our curriculum, it's what is in our social imagination. So if the question is how do we have the most diverse participation in STEM, it's about how do we shape the purpose of STEM in our imaginations at a cultural level, how do we value different voices and experiences, how do we ensure that our faculties teaching it reflect the populations we want participating in it and how do we talk about why it is important that isn't simply 'because it is'. "What is it going to contribute? What is its value? Why does it matter? Why is being this going to do good things?" - are all forms of meaning-making we need to stage.
One final question. After so many years of asking questions and being a provocateur, you now have your Institute at ANU and a real opportunity to deliver something different in education. Your first students are preparing to come, I know you've had a wide call out to get students to come and join you there. Do you have any sense in five years' time/ten years' time what it is you're trying to build and what those students will have when they emerge from their experience of working with you and your team there?
I have hopes, I am not sure if they are ideas yet. For me, the starting proposition of the work here was to say that we are sitting in a critical moment in the evolution and development of technology where artificial intelligence technologies are moving off computer platforms and going into the built world - think smart cars and drones and smart elevators and smart buildings - and that whole move of artificial intelligence to get to scale is one that will change the way the world works. And for me, I don't think we yet have a toolkit to handle that. We don't yet know how to take AI safely to scale. The value proposition of the institute here at ANU is about doing precisely that work. Can we build a new academic discipline or applied science that would help us manage the machinery of AI to scale safely for humans and the planet? What do I hope five/ten years from now? A couple of things; I would like to have named the applied science because I am tired of talking about it with a proper noun, I hope that what we are creating here is the first cohort of practitioners, who will know how to help that happen, who will keep humans and humanity in the loop of our technical futures, who will know how to ask hard questions, who will know how to be in teams of people who are building a future and be the constant - in some ways - guardians of that future for all of us. If we do it right what we are creating here is a cohort of people to help make the future safe for us to live in. No pressure.
You are one of our great original thinkers and provocateurs and that is a fantastic challenge and we all wish you every success with that and will be watching your progress with interest. Thanks for your time today, thanks always for your ideas and your insight and we value your time.
Thank you for listening to this episode of Every Student. Never miss an episode by subscribing on your podcast platform of choice or by heading to our website at education.nsw.gov.au/every-student-podcast or if you know someone who is a remarkable innovative educator who we could all learn from you can get in touch with us via Twitter @NSWEducation, on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks again and I will catch you next time.
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