In the closing months of 2019, 3A Institute students squeezed into a workshop room on the top floor of the ANU College of Engineering & Computer Science to demonstrate their cyber-physical systems. The students, 3Ai’s first cohort of an experimental Masters program exploring a new branch of engineering to manage AI safely at scale, had begun the year with backgrounds as diverse as theatre, economics, software development, medical device regulation, psychology, physics and teaching. They walked the audience through work they’d undertaken as data architects, as machine learning practitioners and user experience researchers building working technical systems. Demonstrating working technologies was part of their Lab requirement for the degree.
One group built a smart pill box, designed to help people manage complex medication schedules. Another group demo-ed a cognitive cubes learning game, using computer vision and programmatic game play to support people to develop cognitive reasoning skills. There was a wayfinding app, helping visitors to the National Botanic Gardens explore new experiences, and an augmented reality wall connecting communities with community leaders.
The 3A Institute, a strategic initiative of ANU and founded by Distinguished Professor Genevieve Bell, is one of a range of initiatives around the world experimenting with immersive, interdisciplinary education methods designed to bridge gaps between disciplines, and hopefully forge new ones.
Periods of profound technological and social change typically necessitate the creation of new disciplines. As the steam-engine moved beyond the mine in eighteenth-century Britain, a new kind of professional emerged to build, run, repair and manage the machine: the engineer. As computers shrank from hulking mainframes to desktop machines to devices in our pockets, disciplines like computer science and network engineering emerged. Across sectors, new disciplines have been created to bridge gaps between practitioners of an existing science, and the new technologies and practices changing the context within which they work. These disciplines have names like Technical Medicine and Web Science.
The University of Twente in the Netherlands created Technical Medicine as a discipline in 2003. Faculty and research partners recognised the need for a new kind of professional, sitting between clinicians in direct care settings and the bio-engineers developing technologies those clinicians would use, professionals with the skills and experience to navigate between the two. Graduates in Technical Medicine, often called ‘technical physicians’, undertake courses in biology, bioengineering, and psychology. The Dutch parliament updated medical regulations in 2019 in response to the growth of technical physicians, recognising graduates of the discipline as qualified medical professionals able to carry out procedures independently.
Web Science emerged out of gaps between research exploring the World Wide Web as technical infrastructure, and its social implications for the world. Created by Dame Wendy Hall and Sir Nigel Shadbolt at the University of Southhampton in 2013, Web Science combines expertise in networks engineering, the Semantic Web, law and sociology and the natural sciences, to take on complex social and structural changes facilitated by the Web.
The first year of 3Ai’s experimental Masters saw students combining practice and theory from disciplines as diverse as computer science, sociology, anthropology, cybernetics and systems engineering. They learnt to engage with software and hardware by actually building technical systems, while developing skills in critical thinking and problem framing. By the end of the year, traces of a new engineering discipline could be seen in the way students talked through their tech demos.
All of the products were rough prototypes. They were experiments. What made the demos fascinating to watch was the way in which students talked through the design process: how the choices they’d faced and trade-offs they’d made would influence the way people interacted with and interpreted their technology; how infrastructure decisions would influence issues like data security. Every group talked about the process of decommissioning their technical system: the circumstances that would result in decommissioning; how data, software and hardware components would be taken apart and recycled; what the consequences of the absence of that technology might be.
Experiments in education aren’t just about designing new things. Often they arise out of a need to challenge conventional thinking, to open up institutions to new kinds of expertise, to include people who have previously been excluded. Renowned architectural historian Beatriz Colomina has been charting experiments in architecture education over the past century in a project called Radical Pedagogies. Exhibitions of Radical Pedagogies have been featured in the Venice Biennale of Architecture and Lisbon Architecture Triennale.
In Radical Pedagogies, Colomina and research colleagues catalogue efforts in architecture education to transform what has been a historically individual endeavour (the ‘lone genius’) into a more inclusive, collaborative discipline.
Over the past 20 years, calls for computer science to reinvent itself, to draw on broader disciplinary perspectives and attract a greater diversity of practitioners, have grown louder. Software is eating the world. Humans interact with cyber-physical systems - physical systems embedded in the world processing digital information, learning from and responding to that environment – every day. The way in which an education in computer science is designed, and how it’s communicated, influences who ends up designing those systems.
Just as experiments in architecture education aimed to redefine the boundaries and practices of that profession, experiments like the Master program undertaken by 3Ai purposefully expand the skill sets and experiences required in computer science. In packaging its program, 3Ai emphasised the importance of the humanities to a technical education; used humour and colour in program material; employed retro-futurist imagery. As a result, its first cohort was over 50 per cent female, ranged in age from 25-60, and was diverse in terms of ethnicity, disability and sexual orientation. Two babies were born among the cohort in the first year, and often appeared in the classroom. Students wrote code, wrestled with 3D-printers and soldering irons, weaved, carved, sketched, folded and reflected.
Toasting students at an end of year celebration in 2019, Distinguished Professor Genevieve Bell said,
“I know that for every one of you, there would be parts of this program you’ve loved, and parts of this program that you’ve absolutely hated. I also know that in five years, you will look back on this program as one that’s changed you.”
As with all education experiments, the 3Ai experimental Masters program is being iterated and improved, with a second cohort that commenced in February 2020. And recruitment for the third iteration is commencing in mid-2020. And yes, over these iterations, some parts will be decommissioned. This process will yield a new generation of practitioners – a more diverse generation, drawing on different perspectives and backgrounds – who will be brought into being, designing the technologies that shape our lives.