A few minutes into the conversation with Distinguished Prof. Dharmendra Prakash Sharma, and you know you’re going to learn a lot. Not just about the man himself, who’s the recipient of an AM in this year’s Queen’s birthday honours, but also about AI, computer science and higher education. His reaction to receiving the AM – surprise, humility and a dash of excitement for the future. “I’m trying to pinch myself to see if this is real,” was the only ordinary thing this extraordinary gentleman uttered. “I didn’t realise at first this would be such a huge deal. I’m more than surprised by this honour. It’s the perfect shot of oxygen for me to keep pushing at what I do, and to contribute to make the world a better place.”
So how does the Chair of the Academic Board at the University of Canberra and a Professor of Computer Science, make the world a better place? The answer is simple: (a) with his actual work and (b) with his attitude towards science, education and humanity.
Born in Fiji after his forefathers moved there 140 years ago, Prof. Sharma is a 4th generation Fijian-Indian and exceptionally proud of his Indian heritage. He’s also equally proud of what Australia has done for him. “I draw a lot of energy from the diversity that Australia offers. I come from a very humble background. I moved to Australia for my post-graduation. The country has allowed me to serve in the education sector for 40 years, provide leadership to my team and contribute to the world around me by making international connections to others in the field,” he said.
That field is computer science, and his key research interests include distributed AI and the applications of AI to human centered modelling and problem solving. Put simply, Prof Sharma’s work involves solving complex, real-world problems with data. He’s not bogged down by alarming reports suggesting 40% of jobs will be lost by 2025. Like all visionaries, he’s cautiously optimistic about the future of AI. “There is some merit to this thought. But the undiscovered potential of AI is vast. The rise of AI doesn’t mean all jobs will be wiped out, it just means that new, more creative jobs will come up. We humans have the power to build this narrative the way we want, as long as we understand where technology is taking us. Understanding that will make humanity more empowered; society will be more technologically savvy and we’ll be able to solve some very difficult problems.”
Take climate change, for instance. With climate deniers refusing to accept scientific evidence, Prof. Sharma realises that the pressure is even more on the scientific community to use data science to address concerns from naysayers. “There will always be deniers,” he observed. “We have to convince them with education. For climate change, political support is needed, but political solutions might not be the answers. Science and education are. I encourage my students to use science to strengthen their arguments.”
In his role as an educator at multiple universities worldwide (UC; University of South Pacific, Fiji; University of Fiji; Fiji National University), as the founding President and Fellow of the South Pacific and the Australian Computer Societies respectively, as a Fulbright ambassador since 2016 and as the senior member of various institutions and think-tanks, Prof. Sharma has always stressed on the importance of education and of students challenging themselves. He’s especially passionate about the STEM fields, saying, “Worldwide, we’re not investing as much as we should in science and technology. STEM should have a lot more focus early on in school. But I see the students who come to me, from all over the world, and I’m filled with hope.”
What’s next for Prof. Sharma? “This award is just a stepping stone. I’ll continue to be a professor – connect with international colleagues and universities (including many Indian ones) to solve difficult problems, use data science to make the world a better place. I still haven’t achieved everything that I want to. There’s lots to do still, and I’m very excited about the future.”