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Outcomes of the AFRAN Forum 2019

The 2019 AFRAN Forum was held on 5 December at the University of Adelaide, on the theme of:

‘Interdisciplinarity and multiple roles of the social sciences in supporting research and innovation challenges of the 21st Century’.

Today, our societies are facing increasing pressures, with population growth and migration, global warming and ecosystem degradation, technological change and increasing inequalities, the rise of terrorism and threats to our democracies. With these and other challenges it seems necessary to think globally about the impact of human activities on the world and on our societies, from our modes of production, our knowledge systems, our political and economic models, to our lifestyles...

The AFRAN Forum was organized around four panels, each of which raised issues from several disciplines: artificial intelligence and human-machine interactions; inclusion, diversity and multiculturalism; the imperatives of climate and the environment; and issues of governance, technology, and economic models.

The Forum opened with words of welcome from Professor Richard Hillis, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research Performance) at the University of Adelaide. Prof. Hillis recalled the importance of developing interdisciplinary and international research collaborations for global challenges such as those to be discussed in the day’s panels, as well as the positive and growing bilateral linkages between the University of Adelaide and France. The French Embassy was represented by Mr. Bertrand Pous, Head of Culture, Education and Science Cooperation. Mr. Pous spoke about the various bilateral events that took place in 2019, and the major role that AFRAN plays in the Franco-Australian cooperation. A/Prof. Katherine Daniell, President of AFRAN, then presented the association and the theme chosen for its annual Forum, pointing out some obstacles to interdisciplinarity. She explained that just as different languages from cultures around the world structure thought differently, and working across them needs good translators to transfer information and ideas from one language to another, different types of multi-disciplinary or interdisciplinary practice also need translators to work effectively between different disciplinary languages and cultures. She also provided a food metaphor from one of her ANU colleagues to explain the difference between different levels of interdisciplinary practice. That multi-disciplinary practice is like a simple meat and vegetable “e.g. meat and 3 veg” meal. Collectively on the plate it makes a meal but you can easily identify all of the ingredients. Interdisciplinary practice involves more linking and common work, like in a rustic soup where things are well mixed and complement each other, but still mostly distinguishable. And then that transdisciplinary practice is more complex in that it requires the transcending of disciplinary boundaries, transforming disciplinary inputs into something new, more like a cake where the blending and cooking of raw ingredients transforms them into something largely indistinguishable in the final product. Finally, the French Embassy’s instruments to support bilateral collaboration were presented by Dr Nicolas Duhaut and Nathalie Simenel-Amar.

Panel 1: Artificial Intelligence and Human-machine interactions

Panel 1 focused on the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) into our decision-making systems and on human-machine interactions. The panel reflected that integration has had a very long history and can be told in many forms, through imaginations and creations like mechanical automata—from Jacques de Vaucanson’s ‘canard digesteur’ to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Or through the creation and use of the term ‘artificial intelligence’ in 1956 at Dartmouth. Or even through the lens of the creation of new disciplines through different waves of technological development, where we’re now in the process of needing to develop a new one for the integration of AI into the systems in the world around us. We have not (yet) reached the development of a «supreme» AI, capable of apprehending the complexity of the world’s reality, however many technologies and applications are developing, and some decisions are delegated to an AI. If the trend continues, a hybrid society should emerge, in which humans and machines will cooperate, as is becoming commonplace in many parts of the world if we reflect for example on our relationships to our mobile phones and AI supported services we encounter daily. The questions that arise are many and varied and include those around the transparency of AI algorithms, their level of complexity, how they understand and control how decisions are made, but also those around the origin of the data on which the algorithms are based (do they take into account the diversity of ethnicities, genres, ages, and cultures?), or judicial responsibility in a dispute over an AI decision... How can we ensure that this data-driven AI-supported world is not a continued form of colonialization and dispossession of those who are already marginalised through these long-lived processes? This emerging hybrid society also raises many questions about human-machine relations: How to work and live with these systems? How can we maintain a level of humanity, taking into account human values, cultures and convictions? How can we measure the progress they are making? The answers will need to take into account the energy cost of these systems, the risks associated with the limitations of their technologies (medical applications, autonomous cars, etc.) but also human well-being and their acceptance and adaptation to these technologies, ethical considerations, etc… The panel discussed the best ‘soup’ or ‘cake’ recipes for linking and transforming ingredients from the different disciplines needed to explore these issues. This exploration requires not only computer technologies, but also social and cognitive sciences, psychology, robotics and more. It opens up many opportunities for inter-disciplinary and international collaborations, since it will be necessary to include as many as possible in the decisions on the systems of our future societies. It also requires interdisciplinary training for our students, and the possibility for researchers to publish on subjects from several disciplines. Just some of these challenges will be treated with new French-Australian initiatives such as the International Research Lab being developed between South Australian universities, Navel Group and CNRS.

Panel 2: Inclusion, diversity and multiculturalism

In an increasingly connected world, our societies are now open to international influences. Linguistic and cultural diversity is a reality in many workplaces, but it is particularly tangible in the field of education and research. How can differences in student cultures be integrated into the way we teach? How to promote and preserve all knowledge and views, traditional or innovative, of all cultures and genders, in order to build a more inclusive and equitable society? This was the theme discussed during the second panel of the AFRAN Forum, and with it, the issues of gender equity, inclusion of minorities, or integration of marginalized groups… The difference in language constitutes a major barrier to exchanges, and the learning of other languages is of crucial importance; but there are a lot of other cultural differences that can hinder cooperation between two research teams or the integration of a group within a society. In the workplace, for example, different perspectives on the organization’s hierarchy, the time scale allocated to a project, or acceptable levels of uncertainty and risk were identified between French and Australian colleagues. Different attitudes in human relations also hinder exchanges, such as the Australian ‘sandwich compliment’ for delivering feedback, or the French spirit for provocation and feisty debate. And when cultural differences are more contrasted than those between France and Australia, how can these cultures be integrated into the melting pot of a society, while respecting diversity? The panellists discussed solutions through listening to and getting to know each other, respect and appreciate different points of view, but also how to train students, have language training integrated into the different curricula, or develop artistic projects that transcend language to transmit cultures, values, traditions or convictions…

Panel 3: The climate and environment imperative

The road to sustainable development in the context of climate change was discussed in Panel 3 of this Forum. How can we better manage our resources and infrastructure do consider the impacts of continued consumption on global temperatures, long term climatic shifts and extreme events, as well as increasing ecological degradation and biodiversity loss? How can sustainability criteria be integrated into the technical and economic evaluation of a development project? How can we adapt our policies to engage as many stakeholders and communities as possible in sustainable management of many parts of our lives and global systems including water, energy, waste and ecosystems across urban and rural areas? Here again, the issue of interdisciplinarity between economics, environment, technology and politics was central to the discussions. There are already areas that link natural resource management with the economy and society, and allow us to foretell and anticipate crises such as those around water. In Australia, the management of the largest river basin, the Murray-Darling Basin, is the subject of controversy between farmers, politicians, environmentalists and researchers. Scientific reports, political reforms, and the dynamics of agricultural activities are not coordinated. Ways to coordinate and create links between stakeholders were discussed through the presentation of a project involving family farms, local communities, health workers, policy makers and researchers, around the global issue of sustainability of agricultural practices and food health. On this project, a working group is entirely dedicated to regulating the links between the different actors, so that scientific knowledge is produced jointly, where the development of these collaborations is evaluated and encouraged, and the results and discoveries of the research are implemented. France has many similar issues although culturally Australian solutions such as water markets to address water scarcity and historical overallocation have been more difficult to implement, but form the basis of ongoing collaborations between groups of French and Australian researchers, industry representatives and policy makers.

Panel 4: Governance, technology and new business models

Our societies are evolving in many fields: governance is becoming more complex as businesses begin leading and influencing sectors in which governments traditionally made all the choices; outsourcing and subcontracting expertise is becoming common across all of society from the individual with AI home assistants to governments; and the evolution of technologies continues to make regulation a challenge, leaving these systems to have largely unfettered and direct impacts on individuals. Such evolutions of governance, technology and business models was discussed during the panel 4 of the AFRAN Forum from the perspective of the social sciences and humanities. The role of the arts and literature in our societies has been a central point of the discussions, since they allow individuals and groups to question the future of their society and environment. The social sciences and humanities reflect reality as it is felt, and allow us to anticipate it, and to guide or alert us to avoid the predicted pitfalls. Combined with other disciplines, the social sciences and humanities have a greater impact, and examples linking law and humanity have been presented by the panellists, particularly with regard to social networks, space science and big data. The social sciences and humanities can complement and guide other disciplines once researchers have established enough epistemological and methodological common ground.

Finally, from the design and integration of AI to the impact of human activities on climate and the environment, and from the inclusion to the choices of our economic and governance models, the forum highlighted how the social sciences and humanities, as a part of interdisciplinary practices more broadly, have a crucial role to play in guiding the construction of our societies, and in ensuring that human values, cultures and convictions are respected and evolve appropriately.

The AFRAN Forum 2019 concluded with a word of thanks from Prof Pascal Quester, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Academic) of the University of Adelaide, who encouraged the assistance of all attendees to put the discussed potential projects of collaboration with France into action.

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