Episode 9: Growing pop cultures

Man 1: Many fantasies are being transformed into reality by modern science.

Man 2: Could you prove, for example, that the Martians have built a race of synthetic humans to save the world from extinction?

Woman 1: You don’t believe that

Man 3: I’m a scientist.

Woman 1: But it can’t be proved!

Man 3: It can’t be disproved, either.

Man 4: That leaves us knowing just as little as we did when we got in here!

Danielle Goulopoulos: Hello listeners, Danielle the undergrad uni student here. You know, I’ve been wondering, how will getting jobs in the future work? Here are some VR goggles… let’s see what my future may hold.

Computer voice: Hello Danielle, welcome. I’m a job matcher droid and your career counsellor for today. According to your aptitude and biometrics data these jobs may be suited to you:

AI psychologist, or machine learning engineer for a small red hot innovator company, or a sustainable building officer to help Greenvale achieve livable suburb accreditation.

Other options include quantum data analyst, or digital security strategist. It’s temporary work at mega blue chip company. Or you may also like podcaster, yoga instructor, artistic activity advisor or care specialist for the elders society at the Yellowstone community estate.

Thank you, please select an option option option option…

Danielle: Hey! Where’d my futuristic job sequence go?

Andi Horvath: Sorry, I had to unplug your VR goggles. We have a podcast episode to record, so let’s get started. Welcome to the Secret Life of STEM, I’m Dr Andi Horvath and together with my co-host Danielle Goulopolus, we are going to explore the world of science fiction, plus a universe of past and future inspirations.

Danielle: Hey Andi, those jobs that were mentioned, like AI psychologist, machine learning engineer, quantum data analyst, care specialist and podcaster, were they from a science fiction story? Or were they a real futurist’s predictions, you know those people who are paid to make predictions about trends?

Andi: Maybe a bit of both. We won’t know until we get there.

Danielle: Hmmm, okay. I guess that’s why our school teachers always used say they were preparing us for jobs that haven’t been invented yet.

Andi: Today we ask who, or what inspires career directions - is it a teacher or family member? Maybe even life's random experiences? Perhaps stories, real or even fictional. So let's start today by exploring science fiction - which has stoked the curiosity of some of the people you will meet in this episode.

Rob Jan: G’Day, welcome aboard the starship Zero-G, science fiction, fantasy and historical radio. Rob Jan, presenter and co-producer of ‘Zero G’ fiction fantasy and historical radio on 3RRR FM.

Megan McKeough: Megan McKeough, co-presenter of Zero G on Triple R, Rob's sidekick and co-villain sometimes.

Andi Horvath: Tell us about science fiction, first, your love of science fiction.

Megan McKeough: I actually think I had kind of a soft entry into science fiction where, when I was a kid, I used to watch a lot of those movies like Back to the Future, and things like Honey, I Shrunk the kids, which is kind of a very soft use of Weird Science, and Weird Science is another good one. And then later on I think is when I got more into science fiction as a genre, like weird space stuff, alien and whatnot. I also was very interested as a kid in all the hacking stuff, so hacking movies like The Net with Sandra Bullock, it's very old but very good, and things like that and Hackers and stuff, so that really captured my imagination.

Andi Horvath: So Megan, do you work in science and technology?

Megan McKeough: I do, yes. I'm a developer, but it's a fairly recent career change so I've only just started working in tech and it wasn't because of my love of hacking, but maybe it was? Who knows.

Andi Horvath: Do you both know people who were inspired by science and technology that went into science?

Rob Jan: We've done quite a few interviews with scientists on Zero G over time, including Steve Squyres, who is the principal scientific investigator on the Mars Rover program, Spirit and Opportunity. A lot of those people grew up with shows like Dr. Who or Star Trek, Star Trek especially, lots of doctors, engineers, all sorts of experimental-type people. A lot of them just say, "Well, that was in the background all the time and I wanted to help realise the inventions that we saw on those shows."

Andi Horvath: Let's talk about some of the aspects of science fiction that have actually come to pass. Now, although I know a lot of SF people and writers say we don't write science fiction to predict the future. However, when we look back at some of the science fiction writing there's some little scary parallels. Let's talk about those.

Rob Jan: Jules Verne with his From the Earth to the Moon book back in the 19th century. He had voyage to the moon using a space gun, that would fire people in an enormous artillery shell. He got lots of things about that right down to the Florida launch site and so on. He called the shell the Columbia, and of course they riffed off that later on with the Apollo project. It's like art imitating science and science imitating life and all of these other things.

Megan McKeough: I feel like that's a good segue into talking about briefly Black Mirror. Something that has been talked about a lot is things that were seen on Black Mirror in earlier seasons have semi come to pass. For example, there's a robot dog episode. Scientists are making this dog robot that's actually a little similar, so I feel like they've seen that episode. Also, there's a social media episode around social status where you're rating people and those ratings are very much held onto in society. In areas of China there's a similar type of app that's out at the moment. Even just different little things that have popped up in Black Mirror that have started to seep into culture and actually seep into our real world. It's even more scary because it's actually less fantastical than it seems or seemed even a couple of years ago.

Danielle: Oh Black Mirror, everyone says I’ve gotta see that! You know I’m a fan of science fiction. I like to watch Star Trek with my Dad, and to me it looks like the characters are using mini iPads, retro flip phones, and the communication badges are just like bluetooth technology.

Andi: And yet, these gadgets, especially in the 20th century, once seemed so futuristic. Ray Bradbury an author of Fahrenheit 451 said, “Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it's the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself.”

Danielle: You mentioned to me the other day a crime-fighting, driverless car called KITT, that was in the 1980s TV series Knight Rider. The signs were already there, Uber drivers will all be unemployed soon.

Andi: Yup. Sooner than we think!Check this out. There was an interesting 2018 research paper by Philipp Jordan and his colleagues at the University of Hawaii who explored the trend that people involved in human-computer interaction research use science fiction as inspiration.

This is cool. More and more technology companies are using futurists, who use science fiction, to explore potential new technologies and their impact. They call this science fiction prototyping - hey, this could be a job for you!

Danielle: That would be a cool career. Science fiction plays a role in questioning what it means to be human, it reflects on hypothetical scenarios, and social or technological ‘what ifs’. Here are Megan and Rob again.

Megan McKeough: I think a really beautiful example of a film that's more about a humanity and using that science fiction trope as a way of looking at what it means to be human is the film Arrival, which is semi recent. It involves a female scientist, Amy Adams. She's a linguist. It's a wonderful movie by Denis Villeneuve, and I think that's a really great example of aliens coming to Earth trope. It's so mature and I want to see more films that do that. I mean, love Independence Day, not dissing Independence Day by any means, but I really, really... I like there's more movies doing that, like Interstellar with Matthew McConaughey. It's all playing with interesting ideas, like metaphysical ideas and interesting takes on that, but it still fits within that trope of that what if idea. What would we do? How would we react?

Rob Jan: I mean, part of the social side of science fiction, whether you're talking about literature or movies and TV, is the fact that they do actually put ideas out there, as we were saying before with Black Mirror, and they experiment with that. It's holding up that reflective surface to what we're doing today and maybe sometimes giving it a sort of distorting image back.

Megan McKeough: Those are cool ideas and you maybe think they will happen one day, which makes me think what we're seeing now in some of the science fiction and pop culture that will be around in 20 years.

I think lately there's been a lot of playing around with that in media in terms of scientists who create AI or fiddle with genes or do something, either through loneliness or through... So I'm thinking of things like Ex Machina, which is a recent movie where he makes this artificial woman, and it's a really wonderful film by Alex Garland. Also, even things like Her with Joaquin Phoenix where the technology is used as sort of a human thing. I think that's quite interesting and something that's pretty recent because they're talking. They used to always play around with... like Weird Science making a woman reanimator from back in the day.

Rob Jan: Yes, the H.P. Lovecraft film where they're trying to bring pretty much any living thing back to life. That's playing into the Frankenstein trope.

Chris Hatzis: It’s alive!

Danielle: There is no doubt there are some old cultural stereotypes of scientists, engineers and computer scientists but stereotypes are just stereotypes. The Secret life of STEM crew have talked to many scientists about this very topic.

Dr Emma Burrows: The unconscious bias that affects women in STEM happens to be around, what does a scientist look like? When I talk to six-year-olds through my outreach work, a lot of them will say, "Yeah, lab coat. Exploding things," but they won't necessarily 100% of the time say a man or a woman. They'll equally say, "Yeah, a man or a woman," but you speak to 10-year-olds and they will say a man, white hair, glasses, white lab coat. They're basically describing Albert Einstein.

So, as a woman in STEM, every day, I experience the stereotype, and it plays out in the way that our leadership look like, so at the moment, I'm at an institute that has 20% of their leaders are women, which means that the rest of them are men. So it's not equal at the top, but if you look at the level of the PhD, that's the first stage as a researcher, it's 70% women and 30% men. So, I see that and I go, "Hey, that doesn't look fair. What's going on here?"

So, absolutely, I experience it, and there are many different ways that women in STEM can experience unconscious bias, and it's really important to note that women are also biased towards women in science, so it's something that affects society and not just from men only. It's actually men and women are both biased because of the Einstein image, because of the way we're socialized.

Andi: That was Dr Emma Burrows, a dementia research fellow at the Florey Institute, here in Melbourne.

Okay, let’s try something. Close your eyes and imagine a scientist. What just popped into your mind? Results may vary depending on your age. Well, back in 1983, a guy named David Chambers asked the same question to some students - draw that imagined scientist. And guess what… the results were alarmingly uniform: old white guys in labcoats!

Apparently, hen the Draw A Scientist Test was done again in 2003, the results were starting to diversify: half of all girls taking the test drew women. Slowly but surely, images of women scientists started to creep into the mind’s eye. So things were starting to change

Danielle: Try googling the word scientists today, go on, I dare you! You get teams of people and diversity. Even stereotypes undergo evolution. Nice work world!

Megan McKeough: I do think there is a lack of representation in some ways of maybe role models, but I think there is definitely a distinct lack of female representation on screen.

Certain ones stick out, and the fact that they always stick out as examples means there are few and far between, like Laura Dern in Jurassic Park. She's a scientist in that and I think she's quite inspirational for a lot of women because she's not running around in heels. She's a scientist, she's there, she kicks butt. I wish there were more characters like that. I think Dana Scully is a big inspiration for a lot of people I know. Maybe that's more forensic sciences.

Danielle: The Secret Life of STEM Podcast Team gatecrashed a lively start-of-the-semester Uni Student BBQ, on one of the expansive green lawns at the University of Melbourne. We asked the students who, or what, inspires them?

Emma: Hi I'm Emma and I study environmental engineering. And mainly that involves mathematics biology engineering subjects and also a little bit of statistics.

Buffy: So what is your favourite science or pop culture character that you might be familiar with, Emma?

Emma: You can't really choose just one. But. I remember from my childhood watching Phineas and Ferb. They were just so imaginative and just testing the limits of what you can create.

Student 1: Wait, what was the one from Phineas and Ferb?

Student 2: Phineas and Ferb? Oh-

Student 1: That one was pretty good but I can't think-

Student 2: Oh, Doctor Doofenshmirtz.

Student 1: Yeah, yeah.

Andi: When you were growing up, were you inspired by any fictional characters in science?

Huda: Um, you know Dexter's Laboratory? Yeah, I loved that when I was a kid. But I don't know if that inspired me, but that was the only representation of science that I had when I was that young.

Andi: He was a bit of an evil genius, wasn't he?

Huda: Yeah, he was but he was funny and he was lovable, so.

Cole: Rick Sanchez, why not.

Zaid: Um, the evil scientist from Sonic.

Andi: Why do you like that scientist?

Zaid: He's just fun, you know? He knows he's evil but he leans into it, which I appreciate.

Joseph: This is weird but, Ben 10, honestly. I really was interested in space for a good long while after watching Ben 10.

Andi: Tell me more about Ben 10.

Joseph: It's a kids cartoon which I watched when I was like, eight, so it's appropriate. Yeah, it's about a boy who can turn into aliens. It's fun, it was fun. I still find it entertaining.

Andi: Do you think your inner Ben 10 is still there?

Joseph: No, I think he died a few years ago, if I'm being quite frank.

Andi: Do you have any fictional characters in science that inspired you, that you like or you hate?

Student 3: The guy from Flubber. I don’t know what his name is!

Harry: Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Andi: Isn't he that American chap?

Student 4: I'm gonna choose Leonardo da Vinci like everyone knows he was a genius, and I think growing up I didn't really know if he was like an artist, or like an inventor or a scientist. But turns out he's all of them. And I think that's cool because he epitomizes like creativity, and he combines science and art. In that renaissance period which I think we could go back to and have a look at that.

Andi: Were you inspired by any cartoon characters or popular culture science characters?

Jessie: Richard O'Hare.

Andi: Tell me more about Richard O'Hare.

Jessie: Richard O'Hare's energy that he brings to his lectures is the only reason I studied for Chemistry, and did Biochemistry.

Andi: Richard O'Hare comes from which comic?

Jessie: He's a lecturer here.

Andi: Oh, he's a lecturer? So what subject does he teach?

Jessie: I had him for Chem 2, and he takes the Organic Chemistry component. But I think he also teaches Organic Chemistry in second year and third year.

Andi: Is he worth making patron saint of Chemistry?

Jessie: I would, if it was my decision, yes.

Andi: Were you inspired by any science fiction characters, scientists in cartoons, movies?

Daniel: Well, not a science fiction character, but a teacher who seemed like a science fiction character. He was a high school physics teacher, and he was just so inspiring and he was just really wacky. He looked kind of like Einstein, and from the moment when I saw him I just got captured into the science world.

Andi: Did you have a good science teacher?

Student 5: Yeah I did, I reckon I did. It's a shame they all left, the ones that I really liked. But they were good, they were good.

Andi: Do you want to do a shout out to the one you liked?

Student 5: Oh well, Mr Zimmerman, my Year Nine science teacher, he drives V/Line now it's really sad I miss him, but he was good.

Andi: What inspired you to get into science?

Jake: I had a lot of really good science teachers in high school. A lot of them, you know, crazy experience really got me into it.

Andi: Do you want to do a shout out to one of them?

Jake: Yeah, shout out to Angus McClaren, who was my Year 10, Year 11, science teacher. You're awesome.

Andi: There you have it - inspirations in STEM doesn’t always come from the most obvious of places. So, listeners, what or who inspired you to study STEM?

When it comes down to it, our teachers play an important role inspiring “future us”.

I’m just going to take a moment and say Thank you Mrs Lukeman, you worked us hard but made biology an awesome lifelong interest.

Danielle: Time for some Reverse Engineering. Today’s topic - AI and machine learning. This AI - it keeps coming up!

Henry Duffield: Hi, my name is Henry. I’m a Bachelor of Science Student at the University of Melbourne. For the past 12 months or so, I’ve been learning a lot about neuroscience. I’m interested in the brain and the nervous system and what they do around the body. They do do a lot!

I’m also interested in artificial intelligence, or AI. Neuroscience and artificial intelligence go hand in hand - especially if the goal is to create better computers that can do things that humans typically do. Likewise, neuroscience is really about understanding how humans do those things.

Let’s think about something we find really simple - like identifying fruit.

Imagine you’ve never seen a fruit before, but someone holds up an apple and they say, ‘This is an apple’ and they hold up a banana and they say, ‘This is a banana’ Then maybe they hold up another apple and they say, ‘This is also an apple’; and another banana and they say, ‘This is also a banana’. Then repeat this process many times with different apples and bananas.

Each time you see a new apple or banana, your brain is rewiring what the idea of those fruits look like so that the next time you see an apple or banana you can identify it. Companies like Facebook and Google use this concept for machine learning technology, and it works exactly like this for image recognition. Except, they show an AI computer network - called a model - thousands and thousands of images of an object. Maybe they’ll show it 10,000 pictures of dogs.

Over time, that model develops an idea of what dogs look like, which means that when you Google search ‘dogs’, it shows you pictures of dogs and not cats.

Instagram uses this idea as well to improve its algorithm for showing you pictures it thinks you want to see. Rather than having to tell the model what each image is, it just takes advantage of the hashtags that people have uploaded on their pictures and uses that to train the model.

So, AI neural networks are actually like the structure of the human brain. Our brain has neurons; AI models have nodes that pass information to each other. They are tackling problems, correlating information, modifying themselves to improve results. They learn a bit like humans through trial and error.

Ultimately, machine learning boils down to showing a computer a bunch of information and then helping it find patterns within that information. But the potential uses for machine learning go far beyond image recognition. We can even teach computers how to drive by showing them thousands and thousands of examples of how humans typically drive. Retail companies can learn a lot about their customers based on how their shopping patterns change throughout the year.

But it makes you think: what could happen in the future? This trend has pushed digital ethics to new levels in order to tackle the conundrum. So, will we see robot filmmakers who learn how to write a movie from reading 10,000 scripts? Where is the limit on AI? How well can computers replicate human behaviour for real, and how much do we want it to?

I’m not really sure, but I think one day we’ll find out. That day may not be very far off. I’m Henry - good luck with your scientific endeavours, and may you fight victoriously in the robot uprising.

Danielle: Thanks Henry. I just can’t wait for one of these machines to steal my future job.

Andi: Danielle - but you are studying communications you may be safe, we may need communicators...but you never know.

Danielle: Time for some credits!

Andi: Thanks to everyone who shared their stories in this episode of the Secret Life of STEM. This series was made possible by the University of Melbourne. Thanks to my co-host, Danielle Goulopoulos.

Danielle: My pleasure! And thanks go to you too, Dr Andi Horvath, my co-host. And aren’t you also supervising producer and science advisor?

Andi: I sure am - just like Mr Peabody - the know-it-all dog, well sort of! Not really.

Danielle: This podcast is produced and edited by Buffy Gorrilla. With additional production support from Arch Cuthbertson.

Andi : The Reverse engineering segment on AI and machine learning was by Henry Duffield, with editing and sound design from Silvi Vann-Wall.

Danielle: You can explore the range of STEM courses the University of Melbourne has on offer by visiting study.unimelb.edu.au - By the way, we’ll pop a link in the show notes. Thanks for listening!

Danielle: Andi who inspired you to study Science?

Andi: The Professor on the TV series Gilligan's Island.

Danielle: Well I’ve always wondered why the professor spent so much time building radios and other hi tech stuff out of coconuts, and for several seasons he failed in building a boat!