The London School of Economics needs no introduction, and in this edition of Tech to the Future, Noel Anderson had the pleasure of speaking with LSE CIO Laura Dawson. Topics covered include the future of technology in the education sector; data platforms (and why we won’t get a global, unified one soon, if at all), and artificial intelligence.

Watch the video now, or read the transcript below.

Noel Anderson
I saw a great cartoon in the Marketoonist this week. It had a picture of a high building, there was a boardroom and a load of blokes in there, and one of them was saying, “Digital transformation is years away,” and outside the window was a big wrecking ball with ‘COVID-19’ written on it! My first question is around that: so, do you think that COVID-19 has changed the future of technology, or merely accelerated what was already on the horizon?

Laura Dawson
That’s a really good question. I think, as a gut feel reaction, I think it’s accelerated it, but it’s accelerated it at an unbelievable pace. It’s gone from zero to 120 in eight seconds – you know, really, really fast. And I think what it’s done is all that technology was there – so the ability to do what we’re doing now, to have a conference call, to see each other, to record that conference call, possibly to share screens, possibly to run presentations, to intersperse the two, to bring in different materials – all of that was already there, and particularly for education, it was all already there. The problem was almost a human thing: the belief that it would work, the belief that we could do it, the belief that it was alright to manage people that you couldn’t see, or teach people that you couldn’t see. And so, I think what has happened is a collective and countrywide, worldwide, ripping-the-scales-from peoples’-eyes, on [the fact] that you can have a meaningful and viable conversation and a meaningful and viable educational experience when you’re not physically in the same room. So that’s the thing that I think wasn’t there, was that belief, and that has come in.

NA
And how would that change the course of the use of tech in the education sector?

LD
So, we have already seen it. We’ve seen various different organisations, particularly in the more professional – not higher education, but more sort of industry learning. We’ve seen the rise of online education: you’ve got Udemy, you’ve got the Khan Academy, you’ve even got TED; all these different ways of absorbing short vignettes of teaching and learning in ways that are asynchronous rather than synchronous. I think that was already there, and I think that for education that will continue when people realise they can do it.

I think it would be a real shame to completely lose the human contact, and I think that’s the thing that at the London School of Economics we’re very conscious of, is that students come to London. You know, London’s important, it’s a fabulous city. It’s got its kind of dodgy bits, but it is an amazing city, and students come to see that: they want part of that vibe and to do that. So, whilst I think what it will do to education is make it easier for people to learn, they’ll flip the way that they learn. So, they’ll do all of the kind of, what would have been called chalk-and-talk in the past, they can do that online, and then it’s coming together for the more interactive workshop-type stuff that kids need to do, or students need to do. That will be something that we need to think about: how do we make that really work?

I don’t know if you’ve been talking to anyone about how it’s changing conferences. The same thing applies to teaching; in a conference, you have different ways of going from one bit to another, from ‘I want to go and speak to a vendor,’ to, ‘I want to go into that little workshop,’ or, ‘I want to go into that breakout session’. At the moment the technology’s not quite there yet for that, what we would call the Rule of Two Feet. ‘I’m bored now, I’m going to go into this room over here’. We haven’t recreated that yet. So, I think that needs to come for it to be more full.

NA
Fantastic. So, effectively, you’re saying a lot of the tech was actually already there, it just wasn’t being used and so this wildcard has created the environment to accelerate that, right? So, for the things that aren’t working, which technologies will fill that vacuum? And the same question as well is, which future technologies excite you the most?

LD
Well, I mean, quite a lot. I think I think one of the ones that’s been around for a while, it’s a technology that’s not quite…people struggle to build into how it will help their businesses at the moment, I think. Some do, some don’t. And that’s artificial intelligence.

So, I straddle both the charity sector and higher education sector in my work life and in my professional life, so I kind of cover them both. And there’s some amazing examples of where artificial intelligence is doing some real good in the world. So, there was a project at a charity that deals with breaches of human rights across the world, and – this is a bit dark, so apologies, this is quite a dark story – but they employed a load of volunteers, that when there was news of an execution – I told you it was dark – when there’s news of an execution, what they have to do is those volunteers have to scan newspapers and news sites and identify whether or not that execution is genuinely taking place. Now, that’s a very manual process. It takes a lot of volunteer effort. With artificial intelligence, they can do that in minutes, and then it can free those volunteers up to do what’s actually really far more important, which is advocating and influencing to get rid of executions across the world. That’s why it’s exciting, because it can actually take what is quite a mundane and labour-intensive activity and free [people] up to actually do what the outcome of that activity should be. And that’s what we need more of.

So yeah, I think artificial intelligence has got a lot for it. In the student sector, it’s about being able to spot a student who may be in a bit of trouble. Or maybe needs a bit more help with their studies, maybe is dropping out a little bit more, to be able to identify whether there are wellbeing issues; and because of the wealth of data, using the kind of indicators that AI can pick up on, we can identify where a student might need a bit more intervention from us and maybe stop something from getting worse, far more quickly.

NA
Yeah, and that’s an interesting angle there, because I think a lot of AI is often perceived – there’s a paper on the future of AI and the current research finds that most people’s view of AI goes to Arnold Schwarzenegger and The Terminator and that kind of thing. So, the exercise you have to do is reframe it; you know, it’s a whole reframing exercise to get people to see AI as a potential friend, and that’s a great example of where actually the AI is helping us to save time from the ills that that humans can do, and often will.

LD
Yeah, AI is not in itself inherently evil. In fact, no physical inanimate object, whether it’s a database, or a data centre, or a piece of computer equipment, is inherently evil; it’s the human beings that make it either good or bad. So, it may be in our kind of – I know we’re going to come on to this a little bit later – our utopian or dystopian world we need to actually work on us as human beings, not on, ‘What’s the technology going to do for us?’

NA
So, what could be the misuses of that technology, and how might we prevent that possible future?

LD
It’s a really, really difficult question that one, because actually what you’re talking about here is a tool that can rapidly and effectively gather, assimilate, analyse and project data. And to do it and draw the connections between interspersed pieces of data far more quickly and far more effectively than even an army of human beings could do. That’s what it does, that’s what it’s there for. Therefore, any bad thing that you can think of that requires a lot of people to do something in a repetitive fashion will be done and can be done more quickly. So, the misuse of it would be anything that is illegal, criminal and unethical. So, all the stuff we’ve seen about Cambridge Analytica, and about the accusations in the US of manipulation of democracy – all of that is potentially highly likely and can continue. Even to the extent of the amount of information that is held on you. I love this statistic: there is more information about what you had for breakfast, on the web, than there is about Shakespeare. Okay, I’m exaggerating a little bit, but there is. See, the world knows more about you, Noel, than they know about Shakespeare, if they choose to go and look. Now, I hate to say this to you, and I hate to cut it to you, but Shakespeare is probably a bit more important than you or I are.

Anyway, the point is that all that data is there and even if it’s not illegal, there’s a degree of discomfort about how much people will use information to target you. And I think the misuse can be anything from the organised and state-run, right the way down to the meager criminal, even today. I gave a bad review on Amazon to a product; I basically give it one star and said it wasn’t very good. Since then, I have been inundated with emails offering me increasing amounts of money to take that review off Amazon. I have investigated the situation and it turns out it is nothing to do with the company whose product it was I bought: it’s a scam. That will continue and that will get worse. And it will be things like scraping things like Amazon for information, and then using that for crime. So yeah, I’m afraid there’s a lot of about

NA
Well, this is an interesting point: in some research that I conducted, I asked about potential wildcards in the future, and one that came up was the creation of a global data platform to protect privacy and ensure that the data is used for the good of mankind and held in a secure environment; but now, as an expert in data, and I think I can tell by your response, but how feasible do you think that is?

LD
Alright. Well, okay, let’s separate out the technical feasibility from the sheer terror that that puts into my heart; we’ll put that over there, and just talk about the technical feasibility of this. So, I don’t know if you’re aware of a project that was running in the Health Service some years ago called The Spine? So, the idea of was that all of our health records would be collated into one place so that all health trusts, all caregivers, everybody who was involved in looking after your wellbeing, would have access with the appropriate controls, to that data. At the time that I was in public sector in that area, that was a project that was incredibly difficult and highly unlikely to actually be achieved, and it was because of lots of different things. It could have been the fact that people didn’t have the same structure of data: that Mr. Jones over there was spelt with an extra N over here. And the amount of data cleansing required was just phenomenal, and maybe a bit of AI would help there. But I think the quality of our data across the world is a prohibitive issue; that almost every organisation is not just sitting on shedloads of paper that’s badly filed: they’re sitting on shedloads of electronic paper, that isn’t so much filed as just lobbed into a bucket somewhere. So, I think the feasibility of actually getting that data – for all that the technology world will tell us, ‘Oh, no, don’t you worry, we’ll just pick it up and we’ll index it and it will all be lovely’ – [I’m] too cynical to believe that, it’s not going to happen. It’s just going to be this big bucket of goo that’s never going to be used. So, I think quality of data, how much of it’s just in an unstructured format and just knocking about all over the place, those are two issues, I think would be addressed.

The next one is about the different attitudes that countries have to data and how it is handled. In the US, you have a regime at the moment – and this is probably going to get this cut – but you’ve got a regime at the moment who would far rather control every single piece of information, and if they want access to it, they’re going to get it [Editor’s note: this video was recorded before the 2020 US Presidential Election]. You’ve got other regimes in other countries that will die in a ditch over peoples’ data protection rights. None of that is normalised, it’s not treating them the same way. So, the ability to have a global database that everybody has equality in is highly unlikely, because all it takes is one rogue player and the whole thing will come crashing down. So no, I don’t think it’s feasible. I think there’s a great desire and I think it’s a good thing, which is open data and that’s a different thing. But a single database that everybody can access that’s got everybody’s data in it? No. Not a chance.

NA
I think you couldn’t be any clearer on that one. To the respondents of my survey, I’ll send them the disappointing news. Let’s just play around with this, let’s just say 2040, we’ve found a way for data to be used in a more open way, we’ve got AI, we might be on 6G, 7G by then, virtual reality – [they] have all combined to create a wild future. What do you think are the dystopian and utopian future scenarios?

LD
Okay, so, all your online interactions, all your experiences, and all your purchases are constantly evaluated, and they would provide you with a very personalised online experience. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But it’s directed and controlled by artificial intelligence and machine learning, and it’s aiming to evaluate what is best for you based on its experience of what other people like, and that’s what you get and that’s what you have access to. Doesn’t sound quite so cool now, does it? You think you’re going to choose what you’re doing, but you’re only choosing from a limited set of possibilities the artificial intelligence puts in front of you. It’s based on what you’ve done before, and it’s based on what other people have done before, so what we’re going to end up with is a dystopia where we’re all the same and we’re all wearing the same outfit and we all look the same, and it’s a bit like Star Trek. Frankly, not interested. Happy? Dystopia.

So, you wanted utopia as well, didn’t you?

NA
Let’s try to be a bit more cheerful on that one.

LD
So basically, with the advent of artificial intelligence and mass data, we have a leisurely world, where everything is automated and the amount of manual effort and manual handling required in order to do anything is limited. And therefore, we can spend most of the time sitting about strumming on harps, eating grapes and reading poetry.

NA
Okay, so I’ll dust off the harp and get practicing.

LD
I’m not so sure I quite like the idea of strumming a harp and reading poetry, it’s not my idea of utopia, but I wanted to give an image that was almost Grecian in its beauty.

NA
Brilliant, brilliant. The word the word utopia in itself has got a double meaning; it effectively means is a perfect state ever possible anyway?

LD
Absolutely. It’s not. But I mean, the point is that…we have benefited from technology over the years, we have more leisure time than we’ve ever had before. And now if we don’t have to ever go into London ever again, much as London’s a beautiful city, I’ve now gained an extra two hours every day, which I didn’t have. That’s heading towards a world where I can come into a room, I can do my work, and then I shut the door and that’s it. That’s quite cool. I quite like that.

NA
So, what’s your – and it’s the penultimate question for today – what’s your preferred scenario for the future, in that case?

LD
What, for me personally, or just generally?

NA
Either/or. For you personally.

LD
Me personally, I never have to go back to work. I have no desire to get on a train. I live in quite a posh town; we don’t argue with each other at the railway station, we just tut. You get this kind of tutting goes on if you’ve done anything wrong. And so, I have no desire to get back on the train with the tutters of Hertfordshire, and go into London on the train in somebody’s armpit. I have no desire to do that. I do miss the students. I miss being able to see what we actually do and getting that sense of a buzz that you get. But, for me, I think there is absolutely no reason why I need – I mean, I don’t have an office in the LSE, I’m the only person in my grade who does not have an office. I don’t need an office; I don’t want an office. I’m quite happy, thank you. So, I’d be quite happy to go in maybe once or twice every two weeks, go in to a drop-in part of the office, say hello to a few people, have a few meetings, make sure everyone’s okay and then come back up to Hertfordshire and not move again for another 10 days.

NA
Avoiding the tutters on the way.

LD
Avoiding the tutters on the way. Who needs a tutter, huh?

But generally, I generally think that there’s a couple of things that I think are amazing about what’s going on at the moment, and we should grab them with both hands. The first one is we do not have to recruit in the locations where our offices are based. So, we now have opportunities to actually recruit people from across the country into roles that maybe are a little bit harder to fill in London, and that gives us some equality of opportunity, which I think we should grab.

I think the second thing is that we can offer our staff, regardless of what they do, in most of the cases in technology, a job that is highly flexible, which up until now has been something people have been very nervy about. And there is no reason to do so. I do not expect my service desk to have to come back into the office if they would prefer to have flexibility. So, I think grab it with both hands. So, generally I think we’re in a better place.

NA
Amazing. So, last question for today, back to the present. What’s kept you sane through lockdown?

LD
What’s kept me sane through lockdown? Apart from copious numbers of satsumas – don’t ask – I think, well first of all, I’m exceptionally lucky. I think what’s kept me sane is that I am in a really nice part of the world. I can walk out of my door and I can be in what’s called the Heartwood in five minutes. The Heartwood is a huge area: open land, lots of trees. And I guess that has been nature, so nature keeps me sane. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this year we’ve had a phenomenal number of butterflies, birds are doing really well. So, we’re seeing an increase in nature, and I think that’s really helped. So that’s one thing.

I think the second thing is in terms of connections with my team: trying to create serendipity. I know that sounds a bit weird, but normally I would walk in the office and I’d go past and somebody would take the mickey out of Watford Football Club and then somebody else would ask me about how was my weekend and you’d have a little bit of serendipity, just kind of walking round or doing to the tea point or whatever it was. And how do you recreate that? So, we’ve tried to do that. So, we have a drop-in on Monday, and then we have a hello on a Friday. And then I go through my – this is ridiculous – I stick a pin in the organisational chart, and I just send someone a message saying ‘Hi, how are you? How was your weekend?’ and just try and do that, because that’s about staying connected. And for me personally, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so connected to my team. We just spend so much time together. It’s amazing.

NA
Brilliant. Well, Laura, that’s fantastic. That was your Tech to the Future. Any parting comments?

LD
Well, apart from the fact that I seem to spend more on technology since I’ve been stuck at home than I’ve ever done when I’m not been at home – I think I’m spending rather too much money on it – it’s been fine, it’s been good. And thank you for this. How about you, what’s your go-to for wellbeing?

NA
My go to is [that] I’ve been able to start playing tennis again, and that’s the only thing…I’ve been teaching my son but also getting away to actually have a game myself as well. I’ve always had a super-high metabolism and this is the first time I’ve actually ever put on any weight in my life. So, I’ve enjoyed getting out running around, I’m like a dog after a ball.

LD
Well, fair enough. That sounds cool. Good work. All right. Well, thanks very much, Noel.

NA
Thanks, Laura. All the best.

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