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Our Industry Allies: Dr Sue Keay, CEO at Queensland AI Hub


The question begs. Just what drives a former geoscientist to take on the lofty role of artificial intelligence (AI) chief advocate across a state 273 times bigger than Singapore or roughly seven times the size of Great Britain? “That’s easy,” says recently appointed Queensland AI Hub CEO, Dr Sue Keay, matter-of-factly. “I’m pretty stubborn.”

Stubbornness, arguably matched only by foresight, as mirrored in Sue’s determination to accelerate the much-needed application and value of disruptive technologies to Australia’s future: socially, economically, and ecologically. Stubbornness, perhaps better described as a ‘never give up/can do’ vision that has earned her recognition as one of Queensland’s most influential leaders (The Courier-Mail’s Power 100), and among Science & Technology Australia’s first Superstars of STEM.

Before taking up the reins at the Queensland AI Hub, in August 2020, Sue worked as Research Director for Cyber-Physical Systems at CSIRO’s Data61. Among a long line-up of achievements (indeed, far too many to list), she led the set-up of the world’s first robotic vision research centre, alongside development of Australia’s first Robotics roadmap, outlining how robotics and automation positively impacts every sector of the national economy.

Not surprisingly, her #1 responsibility after joining the Hub – itself launched in April, with $5.5 million in seed funding under the Queensland Government’s landmark $755-million Advance Queensland initiative – is to further bolster the state’s profile as an ‘AI Capital’, not just within Australia, but globally. Established by a consortium of technology-focused companies – including KJR – the Queensland AI Hub has a broad and exciting remit to foster and develop local AI talent and act as both a wayfinder and launchpad for businesses and startups, in tandem with attracting international investment and partnerships, and building confidence – and talent – in Queensland and across Australia.

For Sue, the genius behind the Hub’s creation comes in the opportunity for it to become a trusted game changer in the space, signalling a call to action (backed by education and mentoring programs) for all Australians to ‘get behind AI and initiatives like the Queensland AI Hub’ for the good of all.

One thing’s for sure! Sue’s stubbornness in the pursuit of focused, realistic and meaningful outcomes, will remain her constant ally. She talks to KJR about her vision, career highlights and WOW-factor moments (not least being evolutionary robotics); an unswerving commitment to championing diversity in all its forms; intriguingly, how unicorns, moats and crown jewels factor into her journey; and why AI has her number when it comes to Korean TV dramas.

KJR: There’s probably no such thing as an average day, but what does a really good day at work look like for you?

Sue: I’m inspired by the wealth of talent and interesting technologies being developed across all sectors of our economy. So, a great day for me involves meeting people – particularly founders of AI companies – to learn more about the amazing things they’re doing.

KJR: Can you pinpoint a life decision, moment or experience that led you down this path?

Sue: I’ve always felt that I’m a reasonably useful person. The defining moment for me probably came at a point in time when I had to take a step back and think about what type of career would allow me to really make a difference. How I could apply my ‘usefulness’ to best effect in ways that align with my values. Of course, something important to me is for Australia to be the best nation it can be, and one way for this to happen is for Australia to embrace emerging technologies like artificial intelligence.

KJR: As a female in the tech industry, what stands out to you on your journey to this point?

Sue: Before I moved into the tech industry, I was in other male-dominated industries of manufacturing and mining. What I struggled with when I was younger was the lack of visible role models, particularly women. When you’re trying to find your feet and direction in life, it’s always easier if you can see someone you admire. Unfortunately, I never found that, and I guess it probably did make me question whether I was in the right area. At some point, I realised I was searching for a unicorn – something that didn’t exist – and I had to make a choice. I could choose to tread my own path and try and be successful in a way that I hadn’t seen framed by a woman ahead of me or I could change career direction completely.

I don’t know whether I’m stubborn or unimaginative, but I just stuck with what I was doing and decided I could live without the role model and try and find my own way. I think too, when I was younger, I probably wasn’t aware of some of the barriers I was about to face. So, in hindsight, what stands out from my own journey is that you have to focus on what it is you’re trying to achieve. There are going to be barriers, and I think people are living in denial if they think those barriers aren’t more significant for women in the tech industry. You just have to focus on what you can achieve and work around those barriers.

KJR: Could it be that you were that unicorn in the making, ultimately stepping up as a role model for women in STEM?

Sue: I’ve struggled with the whole concept of being a role model, myself, in as much as I don’t feel comfortable necessarily telling other people how they should live their lives, because I think that in many cases people need to have that experience for themselves and make up their own minds and not be too influenced by what other people say. But on the other hand, I think that the lack of a role model was certainly something that probably held me back when I was younger.

It also wasn’t obvious to me when I was younger, but the older I get, the lack of women in senior roles has become more apparent. When I was an undergraduate, even though it was supposedly a male-dominated field (Earth Sciences), it was still a 50/50 split of men and women, and I guess I just expected that’s what my career would look like. Now, I often go to events and I’m the only woman in the room and, I suppose, reflecting on that, I think: ‘All those talented young women who I went through university with, what are they doing now and what might they have achieved if they had been able to find success in these male-dominated industries?’

KJR: What are the benefits of diversity?

Sue: When you see companies that embrace diversity, I truly believe that the solutions they come up with for problems look quite different to companies that don’t have a diverse workforce. We’re really missing out if we can’t promote diversity, particularly in technology, because I think technology has the potential to offer up solutions to challenges that we have found intractable in the past.

For example – without being too Big Brother-ish – there might be ways of tracking how isolated people have become, and when this may trigger a safety check, whether around mental health concerns or domestic violence. Some of my former colleagues at CSIRO use Natural Language Processing to work out how just from social media, you can get a sense of whether people are struggling and where an intervention might be required. So, if those tools are at our disposal and we can apply them in ways that people are comfortable with – and don’t feel it is an invasion of their privacy – then I think they can be used for good. Unfortunately, I think we’re in a position that if we don’t change things and actually make technology a more friendly place for a diverse range of people to exist, then the very tools that could be being created to help change their situations and improve their lives, will actually not be accessible to them.

KJR: Diversity, of course, is a strongly held value at Queensland AI Hub. How do you see this progressing as the Hub settles into its role?

Sue: A key role that the Queensland AI Hub can play is in showcasing our diverse talent, because although there is a lack of diversity in technology, in general, that doesn’t mean there’s no diversity. We often hear people suggest they would love to have a more diverse workforce, but they can’t recruit because the pipeline’s not there. They’ve looked for women or minorities, and they just can’t find them. I would like to challenge that assumption, and I think one way we can do that is by profiling some of the diverse talent we have. The problem is not that people can’t access diverse talent, it’s just that they are not creating an environment where that diverse talent necessarily wants to be.

The Grace Hopper Celebration (the world’s largest gathering of women technologists run by AnitaB.org), is a good example of that. When we had the Hopper Down Under conference in Brisbane, last year, there were more than 700 delegates in attendance. We celebrated a whole conference full of very talented female technologists who any company should be chasing to recruit if they’re serious about diversity. So, I don’t believe the argument that diversity doesn’t exist. Is it hard to obtain? It’s really how you go about doing it. If you don’t have a diverse workforce and you try and achieve diversity by using the same techniques you’ve always used, you’re not going to be successful. If companies are serious about improving diversity, there are ways they can do it and I think there is an important profiling and wayfinding role Queensland AI Hub can play.

KJR: What are some of the areas of development you’re most excited about at Queensland AI Hub?

Sue: The opportunity to raise awareness about the great work that’s already being done in artificial intelligence in Queensland. That’s an area I’m looking forward to exploring more, and I think the benefits of that will be increased investment into the sector over the next couple of years. I’m also excited about increasing international recognition of the importance of the AI industry in Queensland so that people will consider setting up headquarters for their businesses here to access the AI ecosystem. Plus, encouraging expats to move back to Australia in the knowledge that we are developing an ecosystem where they can feel confident, if they come back, they will be supported and can be successful.

KJR: As a founding shareholder in the Queensland AI Hub, KJR has a 23-year legacy in Queensland with a primary focus on quality assurance and testing. How do you see that align with AI?

Sue: One of the risks of any AI implementation is that it is entirely reliant on the data used to develop the technologies it is applied to. So, if you don’t have good data sets – and perhaps you don’t understand whether the data quality you’ve got is sufficient to be answering the questions you’ve raised – then it’s quite dangerous. Reason being, you could be making completely false assumptions about where your business should be going and why. That’s where I think the role of companies like KJR is critical, because if you can’t be assured that the information that you’re looking to apply artificial intelligence technologies to is robust, then it’s not worth anything. It’s just garbage. You won’t derive any value and you could do some damage.

KJR: There are security concerns that come along with the implementation of AI. How important do you think the role of cybersecurity and vulnerability management is in respect to this?

Sue: I think it’s one of the tools that is an essential component of your arsenal when you’re deploying any technology. I’m going to say something controversial here… I think, in general, Australia invests quite a lot into cybersecurity and cybersecurity research. However, I see cybersecurity as the moat that you build to protect your crown jewels – and your crown jewels should be the development of emerging technologies, like artificial intelligence. What concerns me is we’re not seeing the same level of investment in the development of those crown jewels as we are in the development of the moat that’s protecting them. If we really want to have sovereign capability in the development of technology, we need to be focusing on those crown jewels. The moat, of course, is critically important and Australia needs to have a really strong cybersecurity capability and, again, that has to be sovereign capability. We can’t be importing that from elsewhere. But we need to have similar levels of investment in the creation of emerging technologies here in Australia.

KJR: In what ways do you think AI and the Hub initiative will significantly impact all Australians over the coming years?

Sue: I firmly believe Australia’s rapid adoption of emerging technologies will improve peoples’ lives in a number of ways. Economically, Australia needs to adopt emerging technologies to remain competitive on the global stage. To maintain standards of living, all Australians have to get behind artificial intelligence and initiatives like the Queensland AI Hub. On a day-to-day basis, I think everyone will gradually see a whole range of improvements in how they access services that are important to them. Health is a key ingredient. To be in control of your own health data and more swiftly access information using artificial intelligence. To get insights into your health data through artificial intelligence, have confidence about what those insights reveal and how that influences the decisions you make. All of this is really important, and I think people won’t even know potentially that artificial intelligence is helping them, but, increasingly, that’s what we’ll be seeing. We already rely on a lot of wearable devices and apps to give us insights into our health and that’s only going to increase. What we will see in the future is much more integration with the mainstream healthcare system, so that we can move towards truly patient-centric medicine that is tailored to the individual.

KJR: For a lot of people, AI is a bit of a scary, futuristic concept. What’s an example of AI infiltrating our daily lives, perhaps without our knowledge?

Sue: During COVID-19 many of us have been quite reliant on Netflix, and the way that Netflix serves up its offerings is completely dependent on artificial intelligence. It looks at your previous choices and what sort of content you’re most likely to be interested in. My Netflix account has picked up that I’ve recently had a bit of a thing for Korean TV series, so they’re constantly coming up in my feed. I don’t think people really think about it, but there’s a huge number of examples like that, where things that you interact with every day are built off artificial intelligence platforms.

KJR: So, along with all the great and wonderful things AI can do, what are some of the risks we need to be mindful of?

Sue: A lot of the benefits that we can get from artificial intelligence, rely on us having quality data in large amounts, and much of that is data about our own lives. While that can have great benefits, it does come with a risk that data can be used in the wrong way. How personal information is shared in a way that it can lead to valuable insights into, for example, population-level health data, is something that we have to be mindful of. People need to be able to control access to their data, but they need to be able to do that in a mindful way, because I think most people would be very open to the idea of sharing their data if they understand the benefits. Data at the moment is often being collected by tech giants and we’re not really getting informed consent, because people want to use platforms like Facebook and it opens up a whole can of worms in terms of how that data is then used and applied, which makes people feel powerless. We need to find a better way to balance some of the nationwide benefits of everyone sharing data versus the ability to control your personal information and not have it be identified to you.

KJR: What’s something AI/Robotics related that you’ve been a part of or witnessed that has blown you away?

Sue: It’s hard to single out just one thing, but what fascinates me is the whole idea of evolutionary robotics. One thing people don’t appreciate about artificial intelligence is how it can actually increase human creativity. We think of technology as being inherently uncreative, but when you apply machine learning, you can sometimes come up with solutions that a human might never have thought of. And in coming up with those possibilities, help humans become more creative because they’re given a whole menu of additional choices.

KJR: Tell us more about evolutionary robotics…

Sue: Evolutionary robotics is how machine learning is being applied to every step of a robot’s creation process. Thanks to artificial intelligence, we’re now able to create new materials by their thousand, every day of the week. Where once someone would have had to have gone and done all of the calculations and maybe then physically gone and actually figured out how you could make a particular material out of putting different elements together and mixing them up. Now, you can do a lot of that just by applying some clever programming. So, instead of thinking, ‘Do I make it out of metal, wood or plastic?’, by applying a machine learning algorithm, you can really get down into the details of exactly what chemical composition you might want to make something out of – and that could be a material that you might never have thought of. So, evolutionary robotics goes from that very first process of what material should you make a robot out of.

Then, it looks at what you want the robot to do and how you should design it. So, if you want a robot to, for example, walk in areas where there’s a lot of water, what should the morphology or shape of that component look like? Evolutionary robotics applies machine learning to come up with shapes that a person might never have thought of. People are obviously really creative. We’ve come up with some really interesting robots that often take a lot of lessons from the animal world. Machine learning takes that another step by coming up with things that don’t exist in our world yet!

Finally, in evolutionary robotics, it’s how you then train a robot to do a task by applying machine learning – not by someone painstakingly programming a robot to tell it exactly what to do or even someone showing a robot what to do and helping it learn, but by having the robot figure it out completely on its own. Evolutionary robotics helps us create some different and amazing robots that have never been seen before – hopefully with applications that lead to significant benefits.

KJR: When you think about the next 10 years in the context of technology, does anything keep you up at night?

Sue: My constant fear is that Australia will be left behind, which would be a real shame because Australia punches above its weight in terms of the development of new technologies in different areas. We have a real opportunity to develop our technology industry, here, and not be reliant on importing technology from other places, except when that makes sense. But it’s a time limited opportunity. We can’t go, ‘Ah yeah, we don’t want to do that now, so maybe we’ll revisit it in five years’ time’. The rest of the world is not standing back and waiting for these changes to occur. Change is hard and I do worry that perhaps not everyone will have the appetite to embrace it, but it’s something we have to do. So that’s probably the biggest thing that keeps me awake at night. How we ensure Australia really is at the forefront, not in the middle of the pack and certainly not at the end of the pack, but right at the front.

KJR: What’s the greatest challenge the Queensland AI Hub faces over the next 12 months?

Sue: The principle of the Queensland AI Hub is about building the AI community and, of course, over the next 12 months, I think this will be challenging given the COVID-19 pandemic. We will have to use mainly virtual means to connect with people. I think everyone’s starting to get used to that, but I think it is hard to build a community if you’re trying to do it solely by virtual connections. Hopefully over the next 12 months there will be an ability to meet people face-to-face. That’s an important component of community building. Bringing people together in the same environment and sharing experiences.

KJR: Being a CEO is obviously a time-consuming role, so what do you do to get away from it all? What are some of your interests outside of the Hub?

Sue: I like going to bootcamp for some stress release and getting out into nature. I love bush walking. I also love reading, doing jigsaw puzzles and drinking cups of tea.

KJR: Finally, what is your advice to aspiring tech explorers and champions?

Sue: The only advice I really have is to stick with it. There’ll be obstacles, but if you are keen to have a career in technology or you’re keen to be a champion of technology, then the most important thing you can do is actually get out there and do things. I once read an interesting quote about running that stays with me. The hardest step is that first step out the door. So, the first step you take might be the hardest one, but the important thing is to take it.

To learn more about The Queensland AI Hub and Sue’s mission to propel the nation forward in AI, visit them on LinkedIn.

We’ll be featuring another ally in November, so make sure you’re following KJR on LinkedIn to catch the news.