How science impacts 4IR and vice versa
This informative Q&A with Professor Debra Meyer, Executive Dean of Science at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), highlights the impact of science and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) on each other, with examples of practical manifestation of science within a 4IR realm. In essence, science and 4IR are two sides of the same coin, with each influencing the development of the other.
Science and 4IR technologies seem increasingly interlinked. In your opinion, which of the two plays the leading role in scientific development now and going forward? (In other words, does scientific development follow technology, or is it the other way around?)
Technology is the practical application of scientific research, meaning science is always first. Technology follows scientific investigation; we develop new technologies through scientific research.
Why do you say that?
Science stems from our desire to know; knowing not just who we are and how to live, but how to live better. Our curiosity leads to investigation which in turn leads to discoveries that creates new questions. In our quest for knowledge, we discover ways of improving our lives and in finding ways to practically apply the discoveries, we develop new technologies.
How are 4IR technologies, systems and approaches incorporated in science learning and higher education today?
4IR technologies, systems or platforms allows distance and remote education to occur, almost seamlessly. It no longer matters where the student or the lecturer find themselves physically. If there’s an internet connection and suitable devices they can communicate over distances and the learning process can continue without interruption, which ends up being essential when we are confronted by pandemic conditions.
Course management systems in higher education proved invaluable during the Covid-19 pandemic. These are platforms that facilitate online teaching and learning (for example Blackboard Learn, Moodle, Canvas, etc), primarily supporting theoretical aspects, while the use of virtual laboratories allows for experimentation to be done digitally, providing exposure to expensive equipment without the concerns that inexperienced students may cause damage. This exposure augments and enhances conventional laboratory sessions and in cases of pandemics supports the continuation of education and practical training.
Computation software allows mathematics students, for example, to practice key mathematical techniques and concepts, giving them a much wider range of examples than they could have access to conventionally.
Online collaboration tools allow for improved interactions between students, teaching assistants and lecturers. These tools can often be accessed at all hours allowing students to work at their own pace, or when data is cheaper. We anticipate that at-risk students will be identified earlier through the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques so that earlier interventions can lead to improved outcomes for the students.
Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) applications present novel possibilities as teaching tools, for example to visualize molecules in 3D which is essential in disciplines such as biochemistry and chemistry. Advancements in the computing power of smart handheld devices (phones and tablets) and the fact that these devices are readily available, make AR and VR applications accessible to many students.
Artificial intelligence, machine learning and similar technologies are already capable of accurate predictions within narrowly defined fields. In your opinion, to what extent and how can these tools assist in scientific discovery and practice?
In research; data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence can be used to process larger numbers of samples in a much shorter amount of time during data collection and process more data points during data processing, which allows for much richer patterns to be observed and extracted, allowing for unique discoveries to be made more quickly.
Regression techniques can produce new knowledge in the form of formulae from large datasets, which allows human experts to gain insight into various problem domains. Medical sciences have seen huge improvements in dealing with the large numbers of medical images for processing related tasks, such as the identification of TB infections from images of lung tissue and the identification of various cancers are all aided by machine learning and artificial intelligence.
This will only continue in its importance over time. The use of robotics in space exploration has made advances in this frontier of science possible and this will be aided by improvements in AI techniques going forward. The intersection of disciplines such as biology and artificial intelligence are leading to improvements in both fields as AI techniques aid in bioinformatics and natural processes are used as the basis for new algorithms.
I recently sequenced my mitochondrial DNA and discovered ancestral links to slavery through my maternal line. AI is making DNA sequencing faster, cheaper and more accurate while machine learning algorithms are accelerating the comparison of large, complex DNA sequencing data sets, so I fully expect to further refine the outcome of this research into my personal past. Read more here.
Are the scientists of the future also technology developers in the same instance?
To an extent. Technology is the practical applications of science. Some scientists will pursue new knowledge discovery while others may branch out into applying that knowledge for the development of new technologies. There will always be two interchangeable roads.
If a high school student were to ask you how they should prepare for their future career in science, how would you advise them from a 4IR perspective?
We are a country of disparities; all high school learners do not have access to all the already available 4IR technologies that makes learning easier. So, my message to high schoolers everywhere would be to make sure they have a strong foundation in mathematics, real mathematics not mathematics literacy as well as physical science, which will stand them in good stead in any scientific career as well as give them access to the qualifications which will prepare them to function as developers and better users of 4IR technologies.
Most of our high school learners have access to a cellular phone and data and should make an effort to already apply these for learning and not just entertainment.
What is your view on how to ensure ethical scientific practises in a 4IR world awash with fake news and pseudo-science?
To ensure ethical practices is not easy, especially in a world where even those who present themselves as the best version of humanity are caught behaving unethically; this applies to people, businesses, poor and rich alike. We need legislation to regulate behaviour, but we also need education on the possible pitfalls of technology.
Interestingly enough, the continued development and expanded use of 4IR technologies means common sense becomes more important. Common sense requires that you think through your actions; you don’t just believe anything anyone says. You find additional information from different and reputable sources and only when there’s overlap in the messages are you safe in assuming the accuracy of the message.
It is also incumbent upon educators to constantly remind students that not everyone who uses a platform and shouts comments about a specific topic is an expert on that topic.
It would be great if social media companies take more responsibility for how the services they provide are used. It is too easy for students who fail a test to then use a pseudonym and insult or defame a lecturer on one of these platforms with this untrue information being left there forever, while the businesses involved don’t even respond when confronted with evidence that what’s being posted is untrue.
Legislation to force accountability on all fronts is essential and the European Court of Justice’s ruling in a defamation case of the Austrian Green Party’s former leader, against Facebook, may just be a sign of things to come. Read more here.
According to the World Economic Forum, “Facts alone are insufficient”. They say we need “a willingness to discuss the values we hold dear, even when values discussions may lead to controversy and conflict.” How do you feel about facts within the context of human values?
Information is fluid, because we never know everything there is to know about a particular topic at a particular time. Because of technology we share information quickly, usually when all the facts are not in yet, so people must be reminded that new information, more facts may come to light as we go along and you have to adjust your understanding of a matter, based on all the facts.
The values we hold dear do not need to change if they are values based on fairness and equality for all; if you value only your people and your belief systems, then there’s a problem at the onset.
Humanities and science sometimes appear in conflict, but the 4IR world has highlighted that both are crucial aspects of our existence. In your opinion, how can the disciplines of humanities and science co-exist in harmony in an increasingly technology-driven world?
I once sat in on a robotics lecture where the scientist explained how they were able to develop robots that could successfully interact with autistic children in ways the human counsellors could not. The breakthrough came when the engineers, natural scientists and social scientists worked together.
4IR technology development is a multidisciplinary game, the most successful applications contain components of the humanities, the sciences and engineering.
Lastly, from your personal point of view, what excites you about science in the fourth industrial revolution? (Also, any advice you’d like to share with students interested in a career in science and discovery?)
When I started off in my career in the sciences, theory and practice were very slow to connect and then to lead to the application of new discoveries. 4IR technologies are speeding things up tremendously. These are very exciting times to be a scientist or a scientist in training; we get to see how, what we discover, improves lives in real time.
Just look at what’s happening in this phase of Covid-19. Africans find out what’s happening in China and America almost as it happens. Vaccines and treatments against microorganisms usually take years to develop but because scientists are sharing information and technologies even across remotes distances, we already have successful treatment protocols and the first number of vaccines have been announced, while the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine is already in use in the UK and Canada.
If you ever had an interest in the sciences, do not miss the opportunity of contributing to humanity’s next wave of development, join us at UJ for your first qualification in the sciences.