Interview with Katina Michael

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
Katina Michael
Source: Paul Jones/University of Wollongong

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.”


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Andrew Thorpe has been named as the University of Leeds’ next executive dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures, and professor of modern history. He will move from his current post as pro vice-chancellor and executive dean of the College of Humanities at the University of Exeter in January.

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