By DAVID MYTON
Wisdom, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, comes from taking responsibility for our futures. By that yardstick, Hugh Bradlow is wise indeed.
For Bradlow, the future is not something to be passively accepted. It is to be measured, analysed, strategised, constructively considered, and prepared for in the best way that human intelligence can devise.
So although we are heading into what he says are “massive unchartered territories”, that’s no reason to be afraid. If we do things right, he believes the future with all its challenges “can be our friend”.
Professor Hugh Bradlow is the President of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, having been elected to take over the role from interim President Professor Peter Gray in 2016.
ATSE, he says, is blessed with “an incredible array of talent” and is well-placed to help to guide Australia as it transitions into the technological revolution.
“Our people do really understand the technology with great credibility – better than anyone else,” says Bradlow, who is also an independent Non-Executive Director of Silicon Quantum Computing Pty Ltd.
Bradlow comes equipped with an array of academic-research expertise, including a doctorate in experimental nuclear physics from the University of Oxford, a professorship in computer engineering at the University of Wollongong and another in electrical engineering (digital systems) at the University of Cape Town.
On top of that is considerable industry experience, including serving until late last year as Telstra’s Chief Scientist and before that as its Chief Technology Officer and Head of Innovation.
He’s also a first-class communicator, a seasoned public speaker who has carved a global reputation for thought leadership in telecommunications and ICT centred on a deep understanding of emerging technologies and their likely impact on consumers, businesses and society as they become mainstream.
Valuable insights from industry
Bradlow’s time with Telstra provided him valuable insights into the way industry operates and how it interacts with individuals and communities.
He recalls a humbling experience from when he delivered the first of what was to be around 500 public presentations.
“I gave what I thought was a really erudite paper, which was based on some research I’d done at the university,” he says.
“Come question time I expected deep and insightful inquiries about the technologies I had been talking about when, lo and behold, the first person pops up and asks – ‘Why can’t I get ISDN in my town?’
“I wasn’t prepared for that.”
It was while at Telstra that he began to examine in depth how new technologies and other innovations would impact on business, industries and broader society.
“It was part of my role to look beyond the current time-frames of the business, to go out there and find out what’s going to happen in the future and what we should be doing to prepare for it.
“The analogy I always give is – I’m like the SAS guy who is behind the enemy lines looking for the enemy, to find out what they are going to do.
“Except the future is not our enemy, it’s our friend.”
Towards the new frontier – the ATSE mission
Cometh the hour, cometh the academy. ATSE has been in existence for more than 40 years but the unfolding technological revolution has sharpened its relevance more than ever.
Its mission chimes with the times – “to drive prosperity through advocacy for progressive innovation and education policy choices” and to help to transition the nation to a technology- and knowledge-based economy.
To this end it has actioned a Strategy Plan that identifies eight key areas for “sustained research and action”, including ensuring technological readiness, boosting technology and engineering career paths, improving STEM education, and promoting gender equity and diversity.
“We bring together the main estates – the main players in this society who will be in a position to shape it,” says Bradlow.
“Our fellowship is 40 per cent academic, 40 per cent industry and 20 per cent government, and includes some of the most influential names in technological sciences and engineering; people behind some of the key technological advancements over the past 40 years.”
ATSE is also committed to working with other top-class thinkers through collaboration with the Australian Council of Learned Academies – the challenges ahead, Bradlow insists, will require “a multidisciplinary reaction”.
“Nothing will be independent of technology in the future. Absolutely nothing. People need to understand the way the world will work.”
The impact of transformative technologies
The internet of things, artificial intelligence, digital infrastructure, quantum computing, materials technologies, biomedical advances, new energy technologies – such developments are already beginning to make an impact and this will only become more profound in the years ahead.
“When you take those technologies together there are some massive implications,” he says. “It’s going to transformative.”
One example he gives of potential disruptive technology is “connected autonomous vehicles” – the driverless car – and its implications for the future of transport.
“This is probably going to influence in a significant way about 25 industries,” he says.
“Car manufacturers, road builders, insurance companies, police forces, planning regulations, logistics, retail – a whole range of areas will be totally disrupted.”
Another example of an area facing disruption is food production.
“One notion which is getting quite a lot of momentum is that we’ll soon be able to have meat produced in a factory as opposed to on a farm. It could be a lot sooner than we think,” he says, citing a US company working on producing artificial chicken meat in the early part of the next decade.
“Even if they are wrong by 10 years it’s still going to be a huge transformation.”
Thought experiments and disruption
An interesting thought experiment, Bradlow suggests, is to assume that at least some of these emerging technologies will go mainstream, and then to ask how they will re-shape society.
“The answer is fairly profound in the sense that it potentially destroys jobs but at the same time potentially creates infinite wealth,” he says.
“We may be able to have a society in which people can afford to live quite happily, comfortably, materially. The lower two layers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can be taken care of – but the upper layer, the self-actualisation is destroyed.
“And that would lead to an explosion of issues like mental health, which then says to me we have to train people to think differently about their lives and their future, and that comes back to education.”
“My belief is that a lot of the tasks for which today you need IQ will be automated. And therefore the thing that is going to prevail in terms of employability is going to be EQ [emotional intelligence].
“Among the jobs that will survive will be those that involve understanding human needs and working with people to help them meet their requirements. This is one reason why the role of the humanities will be so important in the future.”
EQ encompasses “being able to understand the world around us, being able to be creative – these are all factors that will enable us to be able to reach fulfillment in this new technological age”.
An interesting question for universities to address from a research perspective, he suggests, is – is EQ trainable?
“I have a strong suspicion that EQ is trainable at your mother’s knee. But whether you can take someone without EQ and put them into a school or university class and turn them into someone with EQ – I have no idea.”
The challenges confronting universities
Bradlow insists that what is needed in higher education is “a redefinition of and a reshaping of the campus environment”.
If that doesn’t happen, universities “are stuffed”.
“Our universities are very much wedded to this notion that we’ve got 43 campus-based universities.
“I honestly think students will be able to get a better and cheaper education from brand-named, top global universities, who inevitably are starting to work on spreading their wings across the globe.”
The driver that will force change on our universities, he predicts, is when “global brands” such as Harvard, Stanford, Oxford and Cambridge start recruiting local students in large numbers.
“When they start to see demand for on-campus education and their student numbers declining, that will create the burning platform. How long will that take? I might be wrong, but not more than 10 years.”
Bradlow admits that many university leaders disagree with him on this.
“When I started talking to universities about MOOCs when they first came out, the attitude was ‘oh yes we’ve seen this before, it’s just the Open University’, and I was saying – actually it’s different because these are self organised. MOOCs are still evolving but I think they are going to have a massive disruptive impact.”
Personalising the student experience
Universities, he suggests, essentially are still wedded to the idea of lectures delivered in classrooms. They are making changes such as flipped classrooms – but it may be too little, too late.
“The logical extension of most of the technologies I’m looking at is that online delivery methodologies are going to be more effective at meeting educational needs because of better personalisation than that offered in our current educational system.”
Universities could better utilise new technologies to enhance and personalise the student experience.
“If I were the universities I’d be looking at these ‘personalised learning platforms’, do some substantive research and work out ones to adopt to improve student outcomes. We don’t need professors or lecturers giving classes of coursework that would be better delivered through those types of platforms. Free the professors to do what they want to do – which is to go off and do research.”
The problem in making profound changes in large organisations such as universities, he says, is resistance to restructure.
“People don’t want to restructure the organisation because people’s power bases are based on how many staff they control and how big their budget is. As soon as you start threatening that, all the shutters go up.
“But in 20 years time there’ll probably only be room for eight campus-based universities.”
ATSE and engaging in national debates
Bradlow is enjoying his time in the ATSE leadership and he believes the Academy is increasingly making its presence felt through engaging in national debates around Australia’s future and by promoting practical and innovative measures to promote, for example, industry-university research collaboration.
Among other things, ATSE’s experts have fed their expertise into the Finkel Review into the future security of the national electricity market; promoted the establishment of a Digital Economy Strategy; and have been active in urging reforms to national water policy.
Bradlow believes ATSE’s new three-year strategy plan will be instrumental in helping to focus national attention and research into climate change, advanced automation of the workforce, and on how to develop social cohesion in the wake of the digital revolution.
“I want to see us communicate with the public in a manner which enables engagement with the Academy and its work,” he says.
“I believe that the public has lost confidence in technology and technologists and we have to find a way of recapturing their trust. This a key aspect of the new ATSE strategy plan.”