The futurist on her gutsy mum, why technology should liberate not control, and how graduates are turning their backs on Silicon Valley
September 12, 2019
By Paul Basken
Katina Michael is a professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering at Arizona State University. She was previously associate dean (international) at the University of Wollongong. Her teaching and research centres on emerging technologies, especially those related to national security, and their social implications.
When and where were you born?
Sydney, Australia, in 1976.
How has this shaped you?
I'm a second-generation Greek Australian. My mother left Greece when she was 17 on a boat bound for Australia, by herself. The gutsiness of a woman leaving her village, at a time when access to outside information and knowledge was limited, taught me that you could do anything. My mother finished sixth class [Year 7]. My father’s primary schooling was interrupted by the Second World War, and he only finished third class [Year 4]. But both can read and write, and are some of the wisest people I know.
How did you become a futurist?
I have backgrounds in information technology and telecommunications engineering, and in national security and law. Before academia, I worked at an engineering firm deploying broadband and wireless technologies across Asia, and got to travel a lot at a very young age. Then, working on my PhD at the University of Wollongong, I got to see the theory along with the application. Working in industry in 1998, we would do things like brain-computer interfaces, and brain-to-brain interfacing, and had discussions internally about how the mobile phone would one day become obsolete.
What propels you forward?
Understanding the role of humanity and understanding what we are here to do in that period of time that the forces allow us to be. Are we using technology in the right way? What is the public interest? Are all technologies beneficial to humans? How is it that we place value in the things that we design?
All big questions – does your work give you any good answers?
When we still have about 65 to 70 per cent of the world whose needs are unmet, then we’re focusing on the wrong values. Even the idea of “humanitarian engineering systems” can create a very convenient narrative for large companies and large countries to enter an area and just collect more data and commodify the individual. I value the notion of participatory design in the building of technology systems. Technology systems are supposed to empower people; they’re not supposed to make them more vulnerable and expose them to greater ills.
How do we get off this treadmill?
It’s easy to do dystopia and very hard to do Utopia. The dystopic potential we are already seeing in pockets – no privacy, constantly surveilled, no living off the grid options – is dehumanising. I’m looking for built technologies that are liberating, that cannot be misused or have limited capacity to be misused.
Can our universities help?
That’s why I’m in Arizona: you’ve got to bring all the humanities and all the social sciences together. Engineering design is not simply a job for engineers. For example, in teaching machine learning, I dedicate a couple of weeks to ethics or have an assignment with an ethics component to it. It’s fatalistic to say that technology can’t be better directed than it is now. It just requires an awareness of young people coming through the system. And, by the way, it’s happening, slowly. There is a resurgence within some pockets, and ASU is one of them.
Can students keep that idealism after they graduate?
The large companies often recruit my students because I am teaching them about the emerging technologies, where things are going, and where things might go. But big corporations are not actually the first choice of many of my students. And if they are, they often don’t last more than about two years.
Why don’t they stay longer?
They can’t come out and tell people what they’re witnessing – although whistleblowers do that once in a while. But there is a revolt – people are thinking about alternative routes and destinations for where they will spend their careers and what’s satisfying to them. I can’t reconcile what’s going on in Silicon Valley, where – if you dared walk the streets and not take that driverless car from air-conditioned office to air-conditioned office, to spend lunch with so and so, who might end up being a venture capitalist – you’d see we are not addressing the things that need addressing first. I think a lot of young people see these things, and are very unsettled in their spirit.
Will artificial intelligence destroy humanity?
I’m rather circumspect about some of the predictions of the future. At the same time, we should be listening to the people who are building future technologies, if they can reflect and see some of the potential issues that may be raised. This morning I had a harrowing experience on a ride with Lyft. The human driver was brilliant. But I asked to go straight down the road and turn left, for what was a 10-minute trip, and the GPS on the app kept telling us to go another way. Drivers’ senses are being overridden by the app. Technology is already driving people to do things. They’re not powerless to it. But we are already allowing this push, push, push of machine data to dictate our behaviour. We walk less and we eat less healthy foods as apps guide our choices. So if you say I have to wait 10 years for AI to become more sophisticated, before saying it’s going to control us, I’ll tell you it’s already controlling us.
What’s your biggest regret?
That I’ve never been to Greece.
What advice do you give to your students?
The same advice that my late maths teacher, Kerry Kyriacou, gave us all in high school: “Stay at university as long as you can, do more than one degree.”
Original Source: “Interview with Katina Michael”, Times Higher Education, https://www.timeshighereducation.com/people/interview-katina-michael
List of Errata:
My mother finished 6th class and father finished 3rd class (there is no Kindergarten in Greece). Dad’s 3rd class was actually interrupted by World War 2 when he was about 7 years of age. Thus he only had two full school years, and he still learnt to read and write and retain that knowledge. As an adult he would read at home to my mother while she was knitting, mostly from the New Testament, or lives of the Saints of the Church.
“we would do things like brain-computer interfaces, and brain-to-brain interfacing”. When I worked for Nortel Networks between 1996-2002, we did not do BCI, we sponsored research into BCI (e.g. Cyborg 1.0 project at the University of Reading). Additionally, we pondered on when mobile phones would become obsolete, and in fact, Nortel ceased to manufacture the Nortel mobile phone in 1999 as a result). We generally believed that mobile phones were an interim step to some next phase of development where we would not need to lug around heavy “brick” style phones.
I don’t personally teach Machine Learning in Computer Science but I have delivered many ethics-related classes on the social implications of machine learning and big data for my colleagues.
Disclaimer: I have a partial recording of this interview demonstrating I did not make these errata. With all journalism, you hope for a fair representation of what you’ve said. Apart from these three issues mentioned above, Paul did a great job capturing the spirit of our interview! Thank you Paul for your time.
Not Included in the Story
The following is additional writing that was not included in the interview but was conveyed to the journalist post the telephone interview on request. Some might find this interesting. I would like to share it.
Have you had a Eureka moment?
“Uberveillance”. It has to do with embedded surveillance devices that denote identity, location, and condition of a subject, inferring social and behavioral states of being. It is the misguided claim that technology can grant us omniscience; when in fact surveillance devices can lead to misinformation, information manipulation and misrepresentation. This term was coined by MG Michael in 2006, and defined by us both, later entering the Macquarie Dictionary and Oxford Reference Dictionary. We were pointing to the perils of 2.0, 3.0 and 4.0 long before there was rampant AI-generated fake news and deep fakes, and heavy buy-in of quantified-self trackers by governments to denote health and safety of its citizenry.
Should Joe Bloggs care about your work?
Yes. Technology affects all people as do the social implications of technology, positive and negative. We have the capacity to be included in technology roadmaps. As “the people” we need to speak up about how we want technology to empower us, and the commensurate values that are important to our communities of interest. Technology should not be something that is dictated at us, it is something that we need and ask for as citizenry from those with the technical knowledge; lest we become productized in the process ourselves. We need to co-design the future together.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Be outside, more than inside.
Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
My older sister Christine who has suffered with schizophrenia since she was 16. Despite her battle with mental illness, she is the most honest, most caring, most loving, most pure person I know. Not a jealous bone in her entire body, she has been my number 1 fan through life. Completely selfless, encouraging, and always there when you need her. The first to say “well done” and the last to ever say anything bad about anyone else. In fact, I can’t remember her saying anything bad about anyone, ever! The word “saintly” comes to mind.
What has changed most in (global) higher education in the last 5-10 years?
We have become obsessed with rankings. We rank institutions, we rank journals, we rank professors, we rank our students, and we even rank the rankings! This has to stop; not the rankings which denote quality but our preoccupation with being in the top 1%.
What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best thing about my job is by far my students. I tell people I have the best job on earth, without a doubt. The worst thing? There aren’t enough hours in the day to do all the projects I want to do!
What keeps you awake at night?
Newborns in the past. Apart from that, not much else. I don’t sleep very much but enjoy contiguous sleep every day.
What do you do for fun?
I have spent copious amounts of time at the beach in Australia, almost daily since I was 20 years old. There is no greater fun than board riding, swimming in the ocean with dolphins, playing ball games with the kids, and soaking up the Aussie sun from morning to evening! Being in Arizona, I’ve had to change a lot of things. I miss the ocean, but my kids call the pool or the local lake- “the beach”- instead. I’ve started to believe it. There is a stillness in the desert you cannot explain.
What’s your biggest regret?
I’ve never been to Greece.
If you were a prospective university student now facing £9,000+ fees, would you go again or go straight into work?
I’d do both. Work and study.
What kind of undergraduate were you?
I got into Australia’s leading scholarship BIT program. I was diligent. Present. A copious note taker. Studied hard. Always contributed in class activities. Pulled my weight in group work. Forged close friendships with my peers. Was always willing to take calculated risks. Always handed in assignments on time.
What’s your most memorable moment at university?
It was the moment that one of my classmates, Clint Paton, pronounced: “Katina, you have to go to Level 10 of the Tower Building!” I said, “Clint, why are you so excited?” And he said, “because Katina there’s something called the Internet there!” So all enthusiastic I took the lift up at the University of Technology, Sydney, the lab was packed and I had to wait till a seat emptied, and low and behold there it was, a Netscape browser. I was hardly into my first search term, when a scraggy looking student next to me said, “excuse me, do you know how to spell “amphetamine”. It was 1994.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Same advice as my mother has always given me: “you can do anything”.
What advice do you give to your students?
The same advice that my late Math teacher, Kerry Kyriacou, gave us all in high school: “stay at University as long as you can, do more than one degree.”
If you weren’t an academic, what do you think you’d be doing?
I started out my career as a telecommunications engineer. I encourage faculty to always get exposure in industry before beginning their faculty career.
What brings you comfort?
People smiling. Flowers. Food prepared with love. A hug.
What saddens you?
Crimes against humanity. Crimes against children. Wars.
What divided your life into a 'before' and 'after'?
When I was 18, I married my husband MG Michael at the end of my first year at University. There was life before Michael when I was a child, and life after as an adult. I have now spent well over the majority of my life as a married person. It was Michael who told me during my Bachelors degree, that I had the capacity to do a PhD one day.
Tell us about someone you admire.
Dr Roba Abbas of the University of Wollongong’s Faculty of Business, once a former honors and PhD student of mine. It’s funny how time has a way of reversing roles- mentor or mentee? I ask myself this question; the lines are blurring these days!
Do you live by any motto or philosophy?
Tell someone you love them. Tell them again. And never tire of telling them some more. But most importantly, show them you love them. Actions speak louder than words.
What would you like to be remembered for?
Being present in the moment. Being human. Loving God.