Graduation of the #3Aifirstcohort and Director, Genevieve Bell's commencement address

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Written by: ANU School of Cybernetics
24 Jul 2020


Graduation of the #3Aifirstcohort and Director, Genevieve Bell’s commencement address
Graduation of the #3Aifirstcohort and Director, Genevieve Bell's commencement address

The graduating class of 2020: Alison Kershaw, Brenda Martin, Felicity Millman, Olivia Reeves, Matthew Phillipps, Kathy Reid, Danny Bettay, Glen Berman, Charlotte Bradley, Tom Chan, Sam Backwell, Zaiga Thomann, Stephen Fry, Hrishikesh Desai, Meghan McGrath (absent), Peter Macfarlane (absent), with Vice Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt (top left) and 3Ai Director Distinguished Professor Genevieve Bell (bottom right).

On the 17th July 2020, we celebrated the graduation of the first cohort of the 3Ai Master of Applied Cybernetics. With our newly-minted alumni scattered across the country and the world, we held an online ceremony to mark this exciting milestone for the Institute.

Graduands of the #3AiFirstCohort were joined by the staff and faculty of 3Ai as well as family, friends and special guests. The ANU Vice Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt opened the event, attired in full academic gown for his first ever virtual graduation ceremony. Professor Schmidt has been a true ally and advocate for this experimental program since the very beginning, supporting our ambitious goal to innovate and test a model of research and education that would teach a new branch of engineering into existence.

Donning Stanford robes, our Director Distinguished Professor Genevieve Bell gave the commencement address, nearly two years on from when she first stood on a stage and put out the call for the people that would help make this mission of the 3A Institute a reality.

We are delighted to share a transcript of the address – a little bit hopeful for the future and glowing with pride at all that has been achieved by our first cohort so far, proto-practitioners of the new branch of engineering.

Distinguished Professor Genevieve Bell, Commencement Address at the inaugural 3Ai Graduation:#

I want to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land upon which I am standing. This is Ngunnawal and Ngambri land, never ceded, always sacred, and I pay my respects to the elders past and present of this place. I also acknowledge that we are gathering in many other places today, and I pay respects to the local traditional owners and elders of all those places too.

It means a lot to me to get to say those words, and to dwell on what they mean and signal; and to remember that we live in a country that has been continuously occupied for more than sixty thousands years. And where people have been making the future for just as long. That is a tremendous legacy and a tremendous privilege, and one that I think about every day.

As most of you know, my mother raised my brother and me on one very simple principle: if you could see a better world, you were morally obligated to help bring it into existence. That you should put your time, energy, passion, intellect, heart, soul – everything – on the line. She believed that you shouldn’t sit on the sidelines but that you should actively advocate for the world you want to see, and that world should be one that was better for many, not just for you. This principle helped me find a path through my childhood and to find ways to try to make a difference. And I have watched my mother live by that compass my whole life. And the notion, that one was morally obligated to make a better world is something that has, in turn, shaped my own intellectual and personal journey.

It took me to America and Silicon Valley for many years and it brought me home again to start the Institute. It is that sense of moral obligation that propelled me to say we should establish a new branch of engineering to take AI safely, responsibly, sustainably to scale and to find people to do that crazy thing with me. It has brought me to this place and this moment. And to all of you, graduating.

And this is the moment when all of us in the Institute and the University, and in our great extended community, say CONGRATULATIONS!! I know it feels very strange to be thinking about celebrating, in the middle of a global pandemic, in the middle of such uncertainty, on the other end of a video call. BUT this is a big thing and it is special.

So I hope we can help make it feel that way today. I also want to recognise all the people who I know have made today possible too: friends, family, loved ones, colleagues, peers, faculty and staff, sponsors, partners, our extended network around the world who were always willing to lend a hand and more. And let us not forget the postal service, telecommunications network and electrical grid, unexpected partners in crime today!

For me, I also want to say a particular “thank you” to the #3Aifirstcohort for saying “yes” when I called on November 9th 2018 – for squealing yes, for swearing yes, for nonchalantly saying yes and hanging up, for texting yes, for crying, for laughing, for calling back and saying yes, for saying yes ma’am, and for asking me to put it in writing so they could see if it was real in the morning yes. All of those yeses made this mad adventure possible.

This adventure does have a history and it bears a little bit of retelling – if there is one thing your education here might have taught you, there is always a history, and always a back story. This one starts June 8th 2018 – in my cold, bare office, with coloured glass pens and a conversation about how to teach a week-long masterclass. We weren’t yet thinking about degree programs, after all the teaching program written into the Institute plans was supposed to ramp up in 2022 – we had ages for that. So with my blue pen, I drew a box with 5 squares and we populated them – me, Liz (Senior Fellow Elizabeth Williams), and Ehsan (Affiliate and former Research Fellow Ehsan Nabavi) – we thought about how you would go from problem solving to question asking, and then from question asking, to question framing. And then we went home for the long weekend; and left the boxes on the window.

The next Tuesday, the Dean of the College and I drove to Parramatta to see Mark Scott, the Secretary of the Department of Education in New South Wales. On the way back, we talked about this masterclass idea. It was a winter day – cold, bright light, long shadows – I photographed the highway and thought longingly of summer. Somewhere near Bowral, she said to me, “it sounds like you have enough for a Master’s program.” I thought about the blue boxes on the window and wondered if she is right. I think about what I know is going on in other places, and at other universities, and about what it might take to really make a new branch of engineering; I think about George Forsysthe and his stapled curriculum document in 1968. I tweeted the photo of the highway, I add the hashtag #sekritproject. I had no idea what I was doing.

The next day, I got a green pen, and drew new boxes above the blue ones - they said “see the world our way” and “get from solutions to questions”. I added an arrow, it said “application process.” A week later we had a working paper ambitiously titled “piloting a graduate degree: an accelerated roadmap” and the beginnings of a new course. We struggled with language – custodians, new applied science; we learnt Blooms taxonomy, we found the forms, we learnt many new acronyms. Liz, Amy (Research Fellow Amy McLennan) and Ehsan made a sign for the Institute with felt and a hot-glue gun; we had just moved into the new office space and claiming it as ours felt important.

Two Fridays after the blue boxes, Tom (Institute Manager Thomas Biedermann) and I wrote a new plan. It is June 22nd and we made a schedule. First step, submit the new courses to the CECS Curriculum Development committee, due date July 5th for a scheduled meeting on July 12th. Then the materials go to the CECS Education Committee, paperwork due July 26th, scheduled meeting August 2nd. Then we progress to the AQF, materials due August 9th, meeting September 27th; and then Academic Board, materials due October 9th, meeting October 23rd. Hmmm. So we realise that isn’t going to work – I mean it would work logically, sequentially, by the rules of the calendar. But by the history of getting new courses up at the ANU, it would never work – usually these things take years not months. But I don’t know any better, and I keep thinking, if we want students for 2019, we are going to have to think a little differently. And I did want students in 2019 – I wanted more voices in the room and more ways to make this idea real.

So we tried again – red pen over blue pen. This time we aimed for Academic Board on August 28th, with the paperwork due on August 14th and reverse engineered our way back. This new plan is crazy, this plan is wrong, and this plan cannot actually work!

This plan does work. Not quite as advertised, and not without misadventure and scars. And not without one final moment. It is August 31st and we are due to celebrate the 1st birthday of the Institute. I have a slide in the PowerPoint presentation that says we are going to launch a new program. The University thinks I cannot use that slide. Brian (ANU Vice Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt) and I reach an agreement. I use that slide. But only after 5pm on a Friday afternoon when the systems and tools are down for the weekend.

Applications open on September 3rd. We have enough funding for 10 students. In true Australian fashion we have a bet on the number of applications we will receive. The highest number in the pool is 100. I go on the road, I go on the radio, I talk about the new program to everyone and anyone who will listen. We get 1 application. And then 2. We extend the deadline by a week. I keep talking about the program. That last weekend, we get some more applications. We think we will be happy with twenty, even thirty. We get thirty. We get forty. Dinner time Sunday, Gabby (EA to the Director, Gabrielle Vannithone) texts – “hey” she says, “45 additional applications have come in. So we are sitting at 88.” We both go to bed, it’s 10pm. By midnight, we have 174 applications.

Three days later, I meet with the Vice Chancellor and ask for a loan, to pay for five more students, because we don’t have enough money for more. We round up – the target state is now 15 students. I convince Katherine (Research Lead Katherine Daniell), JD (Affiliate and former Research Fellow John Debs) and Tony Hosking (Director of the ANU Research School of Computer Science) that they should help vet applicants; and they start reading. There is a lot of reading, and discussion, and spreadsheets and calls and more discussions. And so very many remarkable people. I round up again – this time I don’t tell Brian – the target state is now 16 students. And we talk more and debate and wonder and worry, and marvel. We debate some more. It takes a month. And then on another Friday – 152 days after that first one, Katherine and I make phone calls.

And as November unfolded, it gets suddenly very real. We have students – all 16 of you. And we needed something to teach you, somewhere to do it, and a way to pay for it all. We demolished my office to make way for a classroom, and continued to argue and debate about a curriculum that will be ever evolving, we created an A week to go before O week because we knew we wanted something different, we found people who wanted to be part of all of this and were willing to take a huge risk – Nicholas Moore (former CEO of Macquarie Group), Belinda Dennett (Director, Corporate Affairs at Microsoft) and James Mabbott (National Leader, KPMG Innovate) – our sponsoring partners – became the fairy godparents you always hope for. And we kept a countdown clock – for the number of days until you got here … thirty-five, eleven, three, tomorrow, now!

And that is just one story of this first cohort; we will all have stories and more stories. And this will change and morph as the years and tellers multiply. What I have learnt though, is that you need to build ideas with enough grace that they will hold their shape long after it goes out of your hands. And you have to be generous and hopeful that in making an idea and inviting other people into the conversation with you, the idea will find new forms and new critics and new life. Because what you’ve done is not held onto it so tightly that no one else can change it. And instead, what you have done is made room for a whole lot of other people to take your idea and carry it forward in new and unexpected ways.

Back in 1950, Norbert Weiner put on his version of Capek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots at MIT and in his preamble he would write that in the world he thought we were building together, the engineers must become poets or the poets must become engineers. I’d like to imagine some seventy years later, we know that poets and the engineers aren’t the only choices and that sometimes they aren’t even choices – poets are engineers, and engineers poets. And if we want to think about what it means to stage a conversation about our future standing in 2020, we’re going to need to bring as many different voices into the room as we can. We’re going to have to find ways to curate those conversations. And we’re going to have to find ways to imagine that the consequence of those conversations will be not what we intended, but that they will create all these new spaces.

Because there is never just one way forward, and that there will always be choices to be made. And in some of those choices are also opportunities to do more than just follow your passions or your dreams, opportunities to craft and shape a better world. It will require work, you will need to know what you believe in, and why. It might take time and critical self-reflection – luxuries in a hyper-connected life. For me, it has been a long hard slog, but on my very best days, I have a job in which I think I can help make a better world for all of us. The work we choose, the lives we live, the ways we choose to inhabit our homes, and participate in our communities, cultures and countries can mean something and matter! And I firmly believe you cannot sit on the sidelines of this life.

Instead, I like to believe we will all contribute in small or large ways. We can all find ways to make a better world. And for every public facing moment, there are private acts too, everyday acts of deciding the other ways the world could unfold … small, persistent, powerful, wonderful.

As many of you know, I have been thinking a lot about liminality of late, about the moments in between, and about the rituals and rites that move us through those moments. Graduating is one such moment, it is a rite of passage and one that marks the end of something and the beginning of something new. Like many rites of passage, there is uncertainty about what happens next and about what we might do and where. We are in a period of uncertainties at a scale that feels unprecedented, though I suspect the world is always and already a little uncertain. And the thing about moments like these is that they let us tarry a little in that uncertainty, whilst also reminding us that now will give way to next and that we all have work to do, and work to continue. I like to believe you all said yes to this experience because you wanted to make the world anew and different; and I also would like to believe you still do. And there is work to do, to reshape things, remake things, make room and make possibilities. As this first remarkable cohort sometimes put it #nopressure! But perhaps it is more fitting to end with one of the writers who has thought a lot about such moments. This is from Arnold van Gennep, writing in 1909:

Life itself means to separate and to be reunited, to change form and condition, to die and to be reborn. It is to act and to cease, to wait and to rest, and then to begin acting again, but in a different way.

You are on Aboriginal land.

The Australian National University acknowledges, celebrates and pays our respects to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people of the Canberra region and to all First Nations Australians on whose traditional lands we meet and work, and whose cultures are among the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

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