Dr Catherine Ball – The Scientific Futurist

In this talk, Dr Catherine Ball reveals the growing opportunities for Gen Alpha in geospatial surveying of the Moon, Mars and the Metaverse.

Space isn’t the final frontier anymore, as we create digital worlds we will find new ways that location and spatial information will be used. Geography, Geospatial, and Surveying based jobs are in high demand and are on the hunt for the best candidates. Associate Professor, Dr Catherine Ball is a scientific futurist, speaker, advisor, author, founder, executive producer, executive director, and company director working across global projects where emerging technologies meet humanitarian, education and environmental needs.

Watch 'Dr. Catherine Ball – The Scientific Futurist' (17:54)

Dr Catherine Ball – Science futurist, ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science

(Duration: 25 minutes 39 seconds)


[Red and blue logo revealed reading ‘STEM 2021 on demand. Educating for a rapidly changing world’

Screen reads, ‘Keynote speaker. Dr Catherine Ball. Education for a rapidly changing world’ with accompanying head shot. This image fades and Dr Catherine Ball appears on screen in front of a rich blue background.]

Dr Catherine Ball:

Hi there. My name is Dr Catherine Ball, and today I am going to take you on a journey into the future, which can seem a scary place, but all right, keep your arms inside the car at all times, we're going to have some fun.

Now, one of the things we know about the future is that it's going to be fuelled by purpose. In Australia, the idea of the fifth industrial revolution is going to mean that everything that we've learned about technology so far is going to have purpose built into the business models that allow that technology to thrive. And so if we reverse engineer the future and get back to where we are now and the kids that we're teaching about STEM, science, technology, engineering, and maths, what would they need to learn at school in order for them to be able to thrive in this future that is powered by purpose and supported by technology and dealing with ethical questions that we probably haven't even conceived of fully yet? And I guess the answer to that is, it takes grit and tenacity. It takes ingenuity and perseverance.

My name is Dr Catherine Ball, and some people call me the scientific futurist, but I know that the future isn't just on planet earth, but I also know that the future of planet earth really depends upon the decisions that we make in the next 10 years. So when we look at Ingenuity and Perseverance, they're two words that I always loved anyway and then a few weeks ago they landed Perseverance and Ingenuity on Mars.

[Screen reads. Ingenuity and Perseverance’. Screen shows an image of the Mars Rover. On the body of the Mars Rover are the words, ‘Mars 2020’ and ‘Perseverance’. Screen returns to Dr Catherine Ball in front of a rich blue background.]

And so these kinds of project-led learning examples are great ways to show kids why they should care about maths, why they should care about technology, why they should care about how to engineer the present and the future, and also why they need to understand how to think scientifically.

And so the Perseverance Rover, in all its glory, is pretty fabulous, but I'm a drone person. So let's just put that to one side, the Ingenuity drone, which has been lovingly nicknamed Ginny by the Jet Propulsion Lab at NASA, is there purely as a tech demonstration. So these aircraft have flown, this aircraft rather, has flown all the way to Mars and it's there to do just five missions. And those five missions are all about tech demonstration. How to fly in a Martian atmosphere that no human being has ever experienced. What a great conversation to have, not only in the classroom, but also at home around the dinner table. How do you even start to think about designing a drone that would fly in a Martian atmosphere? Well, the answer to a lot of really great drone technology is actually to look to inspiration from mother nature. Bio-inspired engineering is pushing the envelope on how we find these convergent technologies working in ways that we could have only dared hope they might work.

So the thing about Ginny, or Ingenuity, is that she has a coaxial-contra rotating set of rotor systems. That means the rotor on the top goes one way and the rotor on the bottom goes the other way. And I don't quite think I can quite do that, it's like patting your head and rubbing your tummy. But the reason why she has that as her rotor system is because we know from mother nature that the ways bees and birds flap their wings work in a four-dimensional model. And it was only about 10 or 15 years ago that DARPA designed hummingbird drones that could fly in four dimensions to get through little windows and little spaces as surveillance drones. So there are hummingbird drones. I am yet to see, and I really want to see some butterfly drones, but we're not there yet. And maybe that's a project you could use in the classroom.

But the beauty of actually having these tech pieces on a different planet allow us to inspire kids through real-world examples, that you can reach for other planets. And so some people sometimes say to me, ‘Well, what about planet earth? We're in trouble here. We've got things that are going wrong. Really, should we be spending all this money looking at another planet when this is the only one we know we can live on and we need to protect it? ‘ And my answer to that always is, ‘If we didn't have people looking to the stars and looking to other planets trying to understand the fundamentals of our universe and how we can grow and thrive in other places as humans, then all of the technology that gets created along that pipeline, all of the ideas that happen when you think big and how they can be used on planet earth, well we wouldn't have them. ‘

And so it's one of the quotes from Einstein that I'm sure I misquote all the time, but he once said that, ‘Education is not just the learning of repetition of facts, but it's actually about training the mind to think. ‘ And this is where, as a board director, I sit here as one of 3% of Australians that are on boards that have STEM skills. Only 3% of Australian company directors have STEM skills. And this is a massive problem because we need to have people in our businesses and on our boards that can think like a scientist, that can formulate arguments, counter arguments can pull their own arguments and ideas apart, that can be unafraid to ask stupid questions, that can change how they believe things might be based on the evidence in front of them. Those are the kinds of trainings of the mind that something like a PhD will give you, certainly something like a STEM degree qualification will give you. The ability to take apart the system that you're operating in to try and improve it is key and fundamental to how engineers and scientists think.

So when we look at training the mind to think, we think about human minds, we think about the minds of the children in the classroom that you might be teaching, or maybe the family that you're raising. But here's where I'd like to throw something at you and here's a little exercise that you can do at home, or maybe if you're bored one day around the Christmas dinner table, it's a bit boring and you want to start an interesting conversation, I'm going to throw this one at you. So here it is, an alien, a friendly alien, you don't need to be worried, an alien lands in your living room and the alien only wants you to do one thing to help it with this one issue that it needs help with. It needs you to describe a cat. It needs to understand what a cat is.

Now, how do you even start to describe what a cat is to an alien? Maybe a bit of interpretive dance. Maybe you make sounds like a cat. Maybe you try and behave like cat if you're a bit of a thespian, get into the art of it. Maybe you draw it, get into the art of it. Maybe you look at CAD designing it. Maybe you look at describing it. Maybe you use poetry. Maybe you sing a song about cats. Maybe you go to the best resource on cats that exists on planet earth, which is YouTube and you find some cat videos to explain to the alien what a cat is.

But if I changed the word alien and use the expression artificial intelligence, then you would be sitting at the forefront of some of the hardest work that we're having to do as humans around how we train artificial intelligence and how we enable machine learning and deep, deep intelligence inside some of these systems.

[Screen reads, ‘Whose mind are you training’. Screen shows an image of a human face with shoulders, neck and cranium made of metal chains and mesh, making the person appear non-human. Screen returns to Dr Catherine Ball in front of a rich blue background.]

The way we train these systems is not about limitations around its technology, it's sometimes limitations around our communication skills.

Someone said to me the other day is we need to put the A into STEAM, we need to get the arts. Now, why would that be important? Now, coding is great. Coding is something I think all kids should learn to do, but, and it might be a bit controversial here, for me coding is like teaching a language. Coding should be taught in a language classroom. It's all about lexicon. It's all about grammar. It's all about the systems that you're trying to describe or disclose or work with. And so I speak a number of languages and I also code and I found coding came very easily to me, because I had a good language background.

So this is one of the things that we've got kids that might have English as a second language, or might speak a number of different languages at home, they are the kids that are actually going to be really good at coding. And so there's something you can say to them that then obviously will have potentially an innate capability of doing is picking up another language if they already speak more than one. I find that quite exciting. So instead of creating coders, we need to create Shakespeare's. We need to create people who can maybe use interpretive dance to train AI as to what a cat is. The AI going forwards will be writing our code for us, but how do we tell AI what we want it to do?

Now there's a fundamental aspect around the business of artificial intelligence at the moment and it might be something I'd like you to take away from this talk today, other than the idea of interpretive dance around what a cat is, but explainable AI is becoming a legal phenomenon that's already hitting a number of business sectors across the US. So if you have any kind of health insurance in the US and there's an algorithm, there's a computer that's programming what kinds of things you'll get cover for, what your premiums should be, what your pay outs would be, what limitations they might want on your policies, they are all created by a computer program which is effectively run on artificial intelligence. And so how does someone make a decision about whether or not you're insurable or whether or not you're not?

And so people are saying, ‘I want to see, why did the computer say no. Tell me, how did this come to this conclusion? I need to understand this because I don't agree with what it is that you've done. ‘And henceforth, we have this thing called explainable AI. So it takes that black box of the algorithms, the machine learning, the artificial intelligence that is creating this computer says yes or computer says no, and it has to break it up in a way that we as laypeople or non-coding people could actually read the decisions and the gateways that are being made, which are either letting you through or stopping you from being insured by their medical insurance.

Now, this is a snowball that has started to roll down the hill and it's only going to get bigger and bigger. So being able to understand, articulate, disagree, and challenge with artificial intelligence based algorithms and computer saying yes or computer saying no is a key skill set that we will need as humans as we go forwards. There's everything in here, not only health insurance, but think about it around civil liberties, thinking around privacy, thinking around data, and then what we hand over to some of these big tech companies. But artificial intelligence is fundamental. If we can't get AI right, we might as well go home now because the data tsunamis and the data oceans that we're going to be dealing with in this big data society, they need artificial intelligence to be able to understand, to get the information from the data so that we are not drowning in data and starving for information.

AI will be our friends or our foes depending upon how we use it, what we allow it to do, and how much we actually understand how it is working. This is all about cybernetics. This is all about systems. This is all about seeing that the whole is worth more than the sum of the parts. Now this might seem overwhelming, but this is key to Australia's economic future. And as I stand here in front of you as a board director with STEM skills and STEM training, I am one of only 3% of board directors in Australia that have some kind of STEM background.

Now, one of the messages that I don't hear very often in the STEM world is that when you have STEM skills or STEM qualifications, you can get a job that is actually incredibly well-paid. Now, I don't know if, and I think there probably is a difference broadly across how girls and boys might differ in how they accept the idea of a job and money coming in because of the way women have been typically underpaid, the way we have a gender pay gap and our values of why we care about why we do things, there's a skew that goes wrong somewhere which means this isn't an equal conversation, but I think it's a necessary one that we should recognize that STEM economics is key to the success, not only of Australia's economy, but our personal economies too.

[Screen reads, ‘STEM economics’. Screen shows an image of Elon Musk standing in front of a futuristic car with a cracked windscreen. Screen returns to Dr Catherine Ball in front of a rich blue background.]

So you might find a kid in the classroom is completely disenfranchised and has no interest in STEM, but if you could show them what it is that Mark Zuckerberg makes in a year, and he was a STEM dude on campus creating software to connect up with single ladies on campus, and now look at him, look where he is now. If you look at the large tech companies and how some of these, we haven't even really grasped the capabilities of some of these technologies. In order to have a really exciting career, STEM subjects are a great place to go. In order to get really well paid, STEM subjects are a place to go.

There's currently a gap, and it bothers me, I call it the gaping jaw of defeat gap. And what it means is when we go into PhD level, we're pretty much 50/50 in terms of the gender representation at different levels. So PhD students tend to be around 50/50. By the time you get to senior professorial, you're fewer than 15% women. Now, that means that all those really high paid positions are not being held by women. They're being held by men. And there's an economic disparity around this that I feel like maybe I'm not explaining it particularly perfectly, but it's an interesting conversation, I'd love to engage with you further about this.

How do we use the economic value of STEM jobs and the capability to earn a really great salary and have a really great career and not to be afraid about making money? Because money gives you choice and allows you to make decisions about where you live and how you live and what you've experienced in your lifetime. And I think that that's something that we should be okay to be aspiring towards and it's something that we should recognize that STEM subjects actually do help us get to, especially as women.

Now, I'll take a pause on that there, because I feel like this is a conversation that is only just really starting. And like I said, I'd love to engage with you about what you think that might mean, but STEM economics, the idea of a degree program like a STEM MBA, these are conversations that we're only really just seeing data and information around. And so I'd really love to, yeah, get your thoughts on that.

But I'm going to take you now a little bit into the future. And so if we look at the idea that diversity and inclusion are the same side of a coin to innovation and the more we go up through the global innovation ranks, the more we go up through our diversity and inclusion ranks, there's a relationship between how diverse a company is as to how successful that company is and how much money that company makes. These are undeniable, irrefutable case studies and pieces of research that have been done over decades. And so if I said to you, here's a number of companies. What is the one metric that you might want to use to choose that company over another? Well, for me, what that company is trying to do ethically, morally of course, is one thing, but the other thing I look for then is the culture and that diversity of thought.

And so it's companies that have a really diverse perspective around the table that are ones that are more likely to weather the storm. They're more likely to create new technologies. They're more likely to have a more diverse application to their technologies. And when we look at orphan technologies and orphan drugs and ways in which start-ups have failed, 95% of start-ups fail because they have no valid business model. It's like, we need to understand the capability of technology, maybe that piece of technology needs to meet that piece of technology and it becomes a convergent technology. And that is where the future lies. The deep silos and the deep tech is really important, but it's when you cross-pollinate innovation, when you actually take, for example, who'd have thought it on your smartphone, you've got a calendar, a calculator, an address book, a photo album, and the ability to see somebody's face through that screen in ways that our parents' generation would never have even believed that that was possible.

And so over the horizon is convergent technology, is systems, whole systems-led thinking. It's looking at engineering the future. It's looking at cybernetics. It's looking at human bionics.

[Screen reads, ‘Over the horizon’. Screen shows half of a world globe in the bottom half of the screen. The globe and sky are coloured dark blue with light blue lights dotting the continents and stretching to form lines, travelling upwards into the sky amongst light blue dots. Screen returns to Dr Catherine Ball in front of a rich blue background.]

Robots are not something that will be sat over in the corner, robots will be inside us. We'll have smart braces for seeing dogs. We'll have smart apartments that we live in that if we fall over and we don't get off the floor for five minutes, an alarm will go off to get someone to come and help you get up off the floor. We'll have artificial intelligence that works out whether you're happy or not, or whether you're a terrorist or not.

And with all of that comes legal and ethical and moral and societal issues. I don't want to use the word problems. I was just grasping for another word then. I don't want to use the word problems, opportunities. Okay. They give us opportunities to work out what we want in society. So there's this thing called Industry 5.0, and I talk about it quite a bit, but Industry 5.0, isn't new. RB Economics in Japan from a few years ago created Society 5.0. And the idea of that is that you take all of these technologies that we have, all of the ones that we can see coming over the horizon, and we put purpose in the middle of why they exist. And they are the reasons why technologies will make money is because they are purpose led and values driven, and they perform a social good.

Now, thinking about how we get enthused about this. I mean, I obviously imbibe geek chic. I have it with my espresso for breakfast. How do we bring people on the journey? When we talk about STEM subjects, how do we get kids enthused? How do we get their parents enthused? How do we get their grandparents enthused? How do we stay enthused when it's such a busy space? And I think culturally as Australians, we're very good at celebrating the wins when it comes to sports.

I suppose my closing thoughts on today is that we need to maybe start looking at society and how our culture celebrates sports and turning that into how we celebrate science and celebrate technology and celebrate engineering and celebrate maths and physics and Mars and Ingenuity and fighting cancer and saving the Great Barrier Reef and looking at ways to make sure that we live on a healthier, happier planet where there's nobody living in extreme poverty, where everyone has choice about how they might want to live their lives, where people are respected, where women's rights, trans rights, humans' rights, we all work in a place where we're given the opportunity to be ourselves and be our best selves.

[Screen reads, ‘Celebrating STEM like sports’. Screen shows a gold Nobel Prize medal on the left-hand side and an Olympic gold medal on the right-hand side. Screen returns to Dr Catherine Ball in front of a rich blue background.]

And so for me, I'm not sure that we're there yet, but there's an opportunity here, even in this conversation today, to start that, even if it's a conversation with yourself, how do we take some of the great scientific achievements that Australia has made and how do we turn them into the fabric of our society?

Not a lot of people outside of Australia actually know that it was Australian research that created wifi. Not a lot of people know that Australia pioneered the use of antibiotics in humans. Not a lot of people know people like Elizabeth Blackburn, who's one of our best scientists with a Nobel Prize and her work on telomeres might be a solution to aging and cancer. And the fact that telomeres are now so well known and understood in science, but they weren't at one point. And it's like, people in Australia might know who Kim Kardashian is, but do they know who Elizabeth Blackburn is? Because out of those two people, there's one, that's actually achieved something that's going to increase the longevity of good quality human life through her work. And that wasn't Kim Kardashian in my humble opinion.

And so I'm going to round up today by hopefully having dragged you to the future to bring you gently back into the arms of the present. And so how do we deal with education in a rapidly changing world?

[Screen reads, ‘Keynote speaker. Dr Catherine Ball. Education for a rapidly changing world’ with accompanying head shot. This image fades and Dr Catherine Ball appears on screen in front of a rich blue background.]

Well, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. The thing that I wish for all of you as teachers and educators is to feel supported by industry and to feel supported by academia, to feel the geek chic love around how we want to support you with examples, how we want to support you with real life people, how we want to support you by taking part in events like this online where you're able to dip in and out of this information, reimbibe it whenever you need some refreshed thought around how you're going to deal with a classroom environment teaching robotics, about landing on Mars, but also looking after ourselves and looking after each other.

The next few years coming out of the pandemic are going to be tumultuous and they're going to be important and they're going to set the stage for how Australia is going to grow. One thing that I hope will be true is after every slow down, there's a bounce and it looks like the bounce is going to come fast and the bounce is going to be with us within the next 12 months. And when that happens, you'll see the lights flick back on in terms of our economy, and the lights flick back on in terms of some of the programs that have been halted and the research that's been halted because of the current coronavirus pandemic.

But I don't want to stop on the pandemic. I feel like no one really wants to stop on the pandemic. And so maybe I'll tell you this. One of my most endearing memories from when I was a young child was learning about famine in Africa. And you say, ‘Well, hang on a second. How is that an endearing memory? ‘But stay with me here. I remember watching the famine in Ethiopia unfold in the early 1980s. I was born in 1979. And I remember saying to my mum, ‘How on earth? Why? Why? How on earth could this happen? ‘And I couldn't grasp it as a kid. I really couldn't grasp the fact that we all had food and other people didn't. I didn't know what it was to be hungry like that.

And I think the big thing that happened to me around that time was that my mum then said to me, ‘Always look for the people who are helping. ‘So we then had the Live Aid concerts. We then had the Antipoverty Drives. And when we reached the year 2000 when I was at university, we had the Jubilee Campaign in the UK to wipe all debt from developing nations that was owed to all of the European banks and the big, large international banking systems, just wipe the debt, wipe it off, clear it off. And we did, in many ways.

And removing the risk of extreme starvation and extreme poverty has remained a fire in me. It's the idea that we are still not balanced. We are still not in a society where everyone has enough food to eat. These are things that are still shocking, but I still see the people that are helping. And I guess the key for me is getting involved in science, getting involved in environmental science, nearly getting into medicine was driven for this idea that you can't vaccinate against famine, that we need to work out how we can protect mother earth, how we can have harvests well into the future, how we can mitigate climate change, how we can reduce the risks to the poorest people on the planet from climate change, because they will be affected worse than those of us that live in wealthier societies.

And the moral compass that I have from some of those early memories to me, I hold them dear to my heart because I think they're part of the fabric of why I chose science as a pathway that I wanted to go down, because I saw the problem and I didn't like it. And therefore, something innately in me as a child wanted to do something about it. And I'm sure as teachers and educators, you see this reality in the kids that you teach in the classroom, you see this when people ask why. Why are these situations like this? And I guess if you don't like it, change it. And so get the skills that are required so you can get into a position where you can be sat around a board table, making decisions about how we operate our economy and how we work as a society. You get a job in academia and how you can push the edges of research. You become a teacher and you inspire those young minds to greatness. It really is a calling.

And my dearest aunt who passed away last March was a head teacher for many years. Teaching was in my blood. I almost fell into it, but I always had the utmost respect for my aunt because she cared so deeply about the children that she worked with. And I think there are thousands of kids across Coventry, where she was from where she made a huge difference in their lives, and they probably never got a chance to say thank you or recognize really what she did for them.

So from my heart and my memory of my Auntie Arlene, I want to say thank you all for the work that you do in raising the next generations of Australians. And if you would like to connect with me about anything I've talked about today, you can find me on LinkedIn and I'm sure Scott will share my details if you'd like to connect with me too. So thanks so much, enjoy the rest of this program, and I look forward to seeing you all in the flesh at some point in a post-pandemic future. Thanks so much.

[Screen reads, ‘SISP. An initiative of the NSW Department of Education’. Video concludes by displaying the NSW Government logo.]

[End of transcript.]

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