Season 3 recap: The science of sleep, our energy transition and a booming space industry

Evelyn Storey, Bruno van Swinderen, Ben McGarry, John Chambers, Louise Adams & Lynn McDonald | 02 December 2021 | 32:15

Podcast Transcript: Season 3 recap: The science of sleep, our energy transition and a booming space industry

Hello, I’m Maria Rampa, and welcome to our Season 3 wrap-up episode of Engineering Reimagined. As the curtain begins to close on what has been another challenging year for many of us, we look forward to taking a break and safely reconnecting with family and friends - as far as the COVID-19 pandemic allows of course!

Throughout 2021, we have focused on continuing to bring you the stories of fascinating people and industry-leading innovation to help you navigate the changing and uncertain environment in which we find ourselves, and to inspire you to grasp the opportunities that disruption provides. Whether that’s exploring renewable energy alternatives, the nature of start-ups, the rise of 20-minute neighbourhoods, or how design thinking can democratise innovation - we hope you’ve enjoyed and learned something new from listening in.

For more information about our guests and to listen back to full episodes from any of our three seasons of Engineering Reimagined, head to our website aurecongroup.com or find us on your favourite podcasting app.

In our final episode this year, we take a look at some of the incredible problem solvers, innovators and leaders who have been our guests throughout Season 3.

Firstly, let’s retrace our steps to one of the most fascinating conversations we’ve ever featured; when Evelyn Storey, Aurecon’s Managing Director in Queensland, joined the Queensland Brain Institute’s Associate Professor Bruno van Swinderen to discuss the links between sleep, consciousness and creativity.

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EP27: How sleep makes us more creative, healthier and better human beings

Evelyn Storey: You've mentioned a few times the relationship between sleep and consciousness and attention. And you also research those areas. What is the link between sleep and in your research in these areas?

Bruno van Swinderen: Yeah, the link between sleep and consciousness is a tricky question in a way, because clearly, sleep is required for maintaining a healthy brain. And a brain is what supports consciousness. At least for humans, but we're thinking for most animals as well. And here, we've proposed a hypothesis in the lab specifically that sleep maintains a capacity for consciousness, especially REM sleep. So dream sleep. And what I mean by that is that what our brain really wants to do is to predict the world, right, that's what the brain is for, it wants to be able to predict what happens next. And make sure that you make good predictions about the world. But to do that too well makes you risk becoming a robot and becoming a habit driven animal.

So the way we drive a car and not notice that we've driven for 10 miles. That's in a way a reflection of the brain wanting us to become a habit driven animal, you know, prediction machine. And one idea is that the function of REM sleep, of when we dream and go into the stage of sleep, or the brains awake, like put into a virtual reality, in a way, is that it maintains our capacity for detecting prediction errors, and surprise. And it gives us kind of a capacity to respond to the world in a fresh way with surprise, which is what consciousness really is, when we're aware of something that's changed, there's something new that happened. So one idea is that REM sleep, so when we dream, really curates a capacity to respond to the world with surprise, thereby allowing you to be conscious, and this is a tantalising hypothesis, if you took REM sleep away, completely, maybe you'd become unconscious, you'd become an automaton.

So this battle between deep sleep to just really, fix the brain, and, crystallise habits, and do everything with a minimal amount of energy is kind of counterbalanced with dream sleep, or REM sleep, which is the brain saying, hey, I don't want to be a robot, because it's not adaptive to be a robot, we've known through evolution, that if you respond with curiosity, creativity, and surprise, that you're actually a more adaptive creature, that you actually survive better.

Evelyn Storey:That's so interesting, because I think, for the engineering professional, what’s so important to us is that balance of technical thinking and some element of routine, but also creativity and innovation. So I think you're telling us, we really do need to make sure we're getting a good night's sleep, in order to perform optimally.

Bruno van Swinderen: Exactly. And that's where there's been a lot of misinformation in the media, and how we think about sleep, especially because there's this idea that deep sleep is the good sleep, and the only kind of sleep we need. And indeed, when we take sleeping pills, that typically puts you straight into deep sleep stage. And what it tends to do is prevent a normal amount of REM sleep, of dream sleep. So, you might be getting deep sleep functions, but you're not getting REM sleep functions. And it's a bit concerning that so many people take sleeping pills, and that there's not this awareness that it's not one pill that's going to do the job.

We really need some kind of regime of pills in a way, if we were going to use pills to balance the kinds of sleep we need, in exactly the rhythm that the brain wants it to happen, right, that 90 minute cycle. And the key here in a way is that the brain in general knows how much sleep it needs. Right? So you'll get the sleep that basically you need. So if somebody sleeps eight hours, they need eight hours, some people need six hours or five hours. That's all they need. And typically, that works, you don't have to fix it. And that's often coupled to a lot of anxiety of people feeling that they don't get enough sleep, and then taking medications and then somehow compounding those anxieties over time.

Evelyn Storey: So you mentioned sleeping pills just then. And the conscious numbing effect of those. Is the same thing happening with anaesthetic, when we have a medical procedure?

Bruno van Swinderen: There's some confusion about the link between anaesthesia and sleep. In general, in the past, it was thought that general anaesthesia was really a kind of sleep process. Typically, those drugs will first put you into deep sleep stage. Interestingly, they don't necessarily absolve you of sleep need. So typically, when people wake up from general anaesthesia, especially an extended procedure, they need to recover some sleep. It's not like it took care of their sleep. And that's because it has to do with the presynaptic mechanisms of affecting neurotransmission that basically prevents your brain from working normally. So it's not helping any sleep at all.

The other drug that most people are more likely to have in a general anaesthesia is alcohol. So when people consume alcohol, especially if they consume too much of it, that also will put them into a deep sleep stage, and you see increased Delta activity in their brain. But the net consequence of that is that you actually have less REM sleep after a night of drinking. So you typically go into deep sleep, and then a bit of light sleep afterwards, kind of like fragmented light sleep, and not that much dream or REM sleep. And that's interesting in a way because we know that REM sleep is important for emotional regulation. And anybody who's had too much to drink or who knows an alcoholic knows that. You can't say that their emotions are well regulated. And that's clearly a consequence of consuming too much alcohol. Poorly regulated emotions, irritability, and that's not necessarily only related to having a headache, but the fact that you may not have had enough REM sleep.

Evelyn Storey: You've mentioned a few times, how you're using insects to help you with your research. And as engineers, we're very familiar with the use of models, virtual models or other models to test and iterate our designs. How did you come to the point where you're using insects to help you in your models and in your research?

Bruno van Swinderen: That's an interesting question for sleep because originally, the idea with using flies, Drosophila Melanogaster is the insect we use, the workhorse of genetics, you know, the source of many Nobel prizes in medicine, as a way to discover fundamental biological mechanisms, and for example, circadian rhythms, genetics. The original idea was that, because it was a fly, and had a tiny brain of about a hundred thousand neurons, that sleep would be a simpler problem to study in that it would be a unitary thing, just one phenomenon that flies fall asleep, they achieve sleep function, they wake up, and then we can study that. And we've since found that no, sleep is just as complicated in the smallest animal brains. So they also have deep sleep, they also have something akin to active sleep, we’re not going to call it REM sleep, because they don't have rapid eye movement, they don't have eyes that move rapidly. They don't have eyelids. But they also have these kind of alternations between one kind of sleep and another kind of sleep. And so their sleep is just as complicated.

The value of the fly and doing work in Drosophila Melanogaster is that we have all these genetic tools to be able to, as you say, iterate to finding how something works, so we can turn off one set of neurons, turn on another set of neurons, in real time, using light, for example, it's called optogenetics. And in that way, just find out how the sleep mechanism works.

Maria Rampa: As we grappled with our ‘new normal’ throughout 2021, ongoing global issues, such as how to tackle climate change, continued to be discussed at gatherings like the United Nations Climate Change Conference, more commonly known as COP26. Held in Glasgow, world leaders spent days considering how to transition away from fossil fuels and scale up the use of renewable energy world-wide.

Australia is uniquely positioned to be a world leader in the development and distribution of renewable energies and when John Chambers - Executive General Manager – Future Business & Technology at AGL spoke with Ben McGarry, Aurecon’s Capability Leader, Future Energy, they discussed the advantages Australia has as a nation in the renewable energy sector.

EP33: Getting into the energy transition arena with AGL

Ben McGarry: Can I ask one thing you mentioned there that was interesting was the idea of lasting value being in entrepreneurship, rather than in maybe the continued monetisation of infrastructure? And I wonder if there's some lessons you carry over from the telco space in terms of stranded assets and disruption of, or erosion of business cases for infrastructure, that might have been designed and built for one purpose, but very rapidly, gets disrupted? And then leaves you with the question of, do you let that die as a stranded asset? Do you try and hold on for dear life to maintain the relevance of that asset base in a future world? Do you try and change the future so that your infrastructure is still relevant?

John Chambers: There’s multiple layers. One I think that’ll for a long time remain is the infrastructure investment layer and to a degree, Google and Amazon are creating new forms of infrastructure. But there's always a need for national and global infrastructure that has genuine infrastructure type returns, that people can build stuff on. And I think the challenge for a telco or an energy company is traditionally we've got to not just be infrastructure, but also product and go all the way to the customer and build beautiful end to end experiences and make some EBITDA from that. And then the last 10 to 20 years, we've got really cranky, because these big global smart digital players have come in and seem to be extracting all the value from the customer on top of the infrastructure layer, and I was on a call just before this with a lady who used to work at Sensis, and the journey they went from going, how could we have gone from owning the customer relationship and being worth $10 billion to not and being worth $500 million in six years, because basically, Google came and extracted that whole customer engagement away from them, that they just kept on not accepting the reality of what was happening. And I think that's what's happening now in so many industries; telco, energy, and others. So the question is, what does the future look like? And what is the role of a corporate in the future? Do we want to be an infrastructure player, there is absolutely a role for an infrastructure player.

Look at Telstra, they're focused on 5G, building out an infrastructure layer about 5G, and they'll continue to make returns on that because only three people in this country have a carrier licence. Google are not going to have one anytime soon, startups are not going to have one anytime soon. Someone needs to have a carrier licence, build a national network that people can come do cool stuff on. Will Telstra do really cool stuff with 5G? Will they be the ones who bring, you know, amazing experiences of VR to life that are using 5G and own the end to end value stack? Who knows, I don't think I'd bet on it. But they're gonna have an infrastructure play. It’s the same challenge for energy, people need to own big assets. But infrastructure assets get infrastructure type returns. We're not used to infrastructure type returns, we're used to higher multiple returns, because we've owned fully integrated assets and customer experiences. And we've got to work out who we are, as we go forward.

Ben McGarry: That's really interesting, the idea that you sort of had a blended EBITDA that reflected a full gamut of value. Whereas now you're gonna have to be a lot more granular and understand the differential returns that come from different layers. And when you mentioned Google, it reminded me, when I was in the US living in Austin, Texas, a very progressive city with the utility there being Austin Energy is one of the most progressive utilities in the world. This was 2014, I think. The house I had had a nest thermostat, I think this might have been prior to the acquisition. And that was tied into my Austin Energy utility plan. And I was on a program that let them surreptitiously turn my thermostat down for half an hour at a time. And it was a seamless user experience. And it's been an endless source of frustration for me that we're still not there yet in Australia. And I'm interested in you having come from outside - what is it that's holding us back from adopting these really exciting technologies that seemingly the rest of the world is solving five years, 10 years ahead of us?

John Chambers: That's a really, I think, quite interesting use case because I ran Smart Home at Telstra for a while and we tried to find our version of all that. Aussies don’t like thermostats. Like me, I turn my air-con on when I need it, turn it off, when I don't, turn my heating on. If you said to me set and forget, I'd say, stuff you, I'm controlling my energy usage. And no one's doing it for me. And so we failed at bringing thermostats into play here, and many others have as well. And a whole bunch of things are very different. The whole smart home market in the US, which is 30, or 40% of homes have some kind of smart systems in their homes these days, was built from the fact that 30% of US homes had security because they need it. 9% of Australian homes had security and that was falling like a stone. So they were transitioning from dumb security to smart security enabled smart homes. We didn't have a platform to build on it still. And the most smart thing in most Australian homes is a Google Home or Alexa. And they're really different conditions.

Well, then you've got what happened with British Gas and Hive in the UK where they doubled down on smart home, tanked the EBITDA of the company, got the CEO sacked. They tried to double down on tech and it just didn't pay off for them as well. So it's, again I think they probably felt they had more right to the end to end customer experience and to try and make the money that Google makes. And then they did. Whereas Google can afford to invest in Nest and burn cash on that every year because they're making $178 billion in advertising and we're up against that. The nature of it as well, in Australia, we aren't a naturally innovative country, sadly. We’re learning but we're a resources country, our rails are built on resources and financials not innovation and product and so we've also got a long way to go to play in that space. We've got some early unicorns but certainly a long way from the US or Northern Europe.

Ben McGarry: Do we have opportunities that other countries don't?

John Chambers: Yes, we do. Renewables is one; we have an outsized ability to generate power from renewable sources than most other countries. Difficult to export but it's absolutely a competitive advantage over the rest of the world. And this is why the conversations with Japan about hydrogen are interesting, because you go, we're in a world where real electricity is dropped to somewhere around $40 to $50 a kilowatt hour; in Japan, it's $120. We're in a world where we can generate unlimited renewables, they're in a world where they can generate none, or close to none. Surely, if we can work out a way to export fuel to that country, there's something in it. And that's where hydrogen becomes fascinating, because you go, well, if we can generate it here, export it over there. The price of energy there makes it potentially palatable. But it's a long journey to be able to generate hydrogen at a cost that makes it economic yet, but the business model sort of makes sense, in renewables, definitely, we have an advantage. Unfortunately, it's an advantage for ourselves that we're struggling to work out how to create a global advantage in but things like solar, I think are fascinating. So we have the highest penetration of solar 40%, globally, and we're probably much more advanced than most countries.

Ben McGarry: I think that's a little understood fact about Australia, is how high our renewables penetration is compared to other markets. And I think you're working to build a range of new technologies to help enhance that renewables penetration, including the largest VPP, or virtual power plant. How's that going? What's the latest on that?

John Chambers: It's great, it's early, right? The hard part about the energy transition is the disruption is happening now, and the big value creation is going to happen in four to 10 years’ time. So VPP is a great example, we've invested a lot, we've got probably more batteries under management than anyone else in the country, both domestic and Commercial and Industrial (C&I). And we're starting to see the green shoots about how we'll be able to dispatch frequency and other things of value into the grid that will make money. Think about it- an average energy company, grid connected customers, let’s say, the gross margin on that's 400 bucks, then they become a solar customer. And the gross margin for that customer, because of the less use of energy saves the company 200 bucks, and they become a battery customer. So it becomes 100 bucks, because they're literally just using less energy from us. That's a good thing for the consumer, it's a good thing for the environment, a terrible thing for the retail energy company

But as a VPP customer, let's say the ability to work with that customer who now becomes a fully integrated part of the grid, to use power when it makes sense to but also to dispatch power back to the grid when it makes sense to, the ability for us to slowly shut down plants over time and use this as the source of our energy generation and storage, not fixed costs of managing a plan. Let’s say that $100 of margin to us goes back towards the 400 that we started with, because we were able to make all these savings elsewhere, by working with this customer as part of the grid. That's a really interesting proposition for a VPP. That's the fundamental premise of the VPP for the energy company. So the question is, how do you rapidly increase the amount of dispatchable storage that we're VPPing with our customers, and that's where EVs become the game. Because when you've got a household with an EV battery being five times the size of the household battery, that's the kind of storage you want to have access to, as well as obviously C&I storage, that becomes fascinating. The problem is EVs aren’t scaling that quick. So this is a long game, but it's the right game for the distributed energy future. And so that's why we're all in now, learning as much as we can. Because we've got to balance the whole technology of doing that. But you've got to balance the customer experience, it's really complex to explain to a customer, we want to control your battery for some shared value, we can't kind of tell you how much just trust us because we're an energy company, and you trust us. Just trust us to orchestrate this battery for you. So we both win; that's kind of where the VPP world's at, there's a fair way to go in customer experience, as well as the technology of orchestration to make that the grid of the future. But the beginnings are really good.

Ben McGarry: It's really interesting you mentioned that because I looked a while back at some work that was looking at the value split of distributed residential storage and the split of value between how much it benefits the homeowner for self-consumption versus tariff reduction versus benefiting the distribution network and it's quite interesting to start to unpack that and what you're talking about, from what I'm hearing, is it's incumbent on the retailer or the other players in that value chain to try and incentivise the deployment of that resource one way or another, so that it does benefit everyone in ways other than just you having to fork out yourselves to deploy it, because, you know, as we've seen with solar, that homeowners themselves are the ones deploying their own rooftop solar, and they're going to be the ones buying their EVs or buying residential storage. It must be a really tricky path to tread, as you say, getting the customer to trust you, their energy provider, that if you hand over the keys, it's in the customer’s best interest, particularly when a lot of the messaging is really about self-sufficiency and going off-grid like I can have my own solar and storage. I don't even need the retailer to know about it.

John Chambers: Yeah, exactly. That's all part of the challenge. And in fact, to step back and say, how do we design the fastest path to everybody being aligned towards net zero, you would actually say it's not radical disruption of the big folks, it's much more collaboration, because the big folks want this outcome too but have shareholders to work with. So if we were all lined up and said, how do we make this transition together: big energy, consumers, disruptive technology, it'd be quite a managed process where you're shifting profit pools, from big generation sources to distributed generation sources being shared between well-meaning good energy companies and consumers, but in the most orderly way possible, and really incentivising that rapid take up of consuming distributed energy sources, but as you say, it's usually a lot of the early take up has been on getting off the grid: I can't wait to get away from my energy provider, which kind of means that doesn't necessarily speed up the whole thing.

EP35: Microsoft and the next frontier in space

Louise Adams: So, you're a former US Air Force Colonel, and you've worked for the CIA. So how did you end up moving to Australia to work for Microsoft?

Lynn McDonald: First, it's great to have this opportunity to spend this time with you, Louise, and talk to you about a topic that I'm very passionate about, and I've been fortunate enough to spend my career working in. I was in the Air Force for 23 years, in Air Force Space Command and US Air Force for all things related to space and satellite operations, space launch. I got a really neat opportunity to go spend a year at the CIA, I was a mid-level Captain at the time. So earlier in my career, and I was working for one of the very senior execs at the CIA. Looking back, I wish I had gotten to that with much more career experience and maturity, but it was definitely a foundational learning experience. I spent quite a bit of time with the National Reconnaissance Office and with other partners in the intelligence community, related to space and satellite reconnaissance operations. And then, as I mentioned, I retired after 23 years, and wanted to see life outside of the Air Force. I lucked out some more and landed with this opportunity with Microsoft. I had taken some time off after the Air Force and was introduced to a US astronaut through a friend of mine, and so definitely not going to turn off the opportunity to have coffee with an astronaut. And I was talking to her about space. And part-way through she said, I'd be interested in seeing your resume. At that point, I was carrying my resume in my purse. So I promptly handed it to her. And she gave me that look like, wow. Okay. And next thing I knew, I had a call from the newly hired CTO at Microsoft Azure global. And he said, we're going into space, we're taking our tech to space and looking for industry experts. And we'd like to talk. And so I said, that's fantastic. Wow, this is super interesting. Imagine working in the industry with some of the most capable technologies. So I joined Microsoft in January 2020, and became a part of the newly formed Azure Space team at Microsoft.

A number of us came together from industry, and we all kind of agreed that it was as if we were in a startup backed by a big corporation. So we were just, how can we take our knowledge of the industry and needs of the space industry, and combine that with the phenomenal technology, compute platform, advanced analytics, all that is cloud capability and bring those worlds together? I started working on some initiatives related to geospatial analytics and space data analytics. And our corporate vice president reached out and said, “Do you know anyone in Australian space?” And I said, yes, I do. Contacts from when I was in the Air Force, in Australian Defence, a number of friends and other connections in the industry here. In fact I'd come out here to Australia in 2019, before I had even joined Microsoft, and I attended the space research conference in Adelaide. There was heavy emphasis on research from the Australian universities. And I was completely blown away with the research and the innovation that was coming out of the universities here. So I started working, really anything related to Australian space from the US. So I was working with the Microsoft team here and trying to work with the industry from the other side of the planet. It quickly became apparent that that time zone difference, and the opportunity to engage in the industry here were not matched. So, I was working with Austrade, the Australian trade and investment commission. And they introduced me to the global talent independent visa program. And they said: “Hey, we want to introduce you to the rep in this program because you're moving to Australia, right?”

I was like, what, what, what? I’m sorry, what’s the plan? It escalated quickly. So they kept pushing and I kept saying, what are you talking about? I had other plans, which as we've all learned with all that was 2020, that plans just go right out the window, and you learn to improvise and create new plans on the fly. So, I applied for the visa for the global talent program. Two days later, it was approved. So I realise, I've got a decision to make. And it was really clear, I was absolutely enjoying the work, super interested in the Australian space industry. And it was just another awesome opportunity. So I packed two bags, and got a one way ticket and moved here to Canberra.

Louise Adams: And here we are. I can hear the passion for this space industry and the opportunities. And I think this is where people really love to talk about space, because it is that concept of hope in the future and untapped frontiers. One of my favourite projects that Aurecon's been involved with for a number of years now is the Square Kilometre Array project and the largest radio telescope in the world. It's just so mind boggling to think about being able to look so far into deep space that you're almost looking back in time. So, I sort of get a kick out of that project and we can learn so much about what we are today from space. What is it that you love about the space industry?

Lynn McDonald: It's such a great point that you really have so much potential to innovate and explore technology. I love space. To put it quite simply, I know we're on an audio cast, but even my coffee mug here has astronauts and ‘I love space’ on it. It's truly an industry, like so many other high-tech industries, where every skillset is needed, everyone is needed to really bring the industry to its fruition. The space industry, it is highly focused on innovation, technology, it's a move fast industry. I think we're seeing that even more so now in this space 2.0 era of the industry that it really is wherever you, or, collectively, we want to take it. The thing that I also really love about the industry, is this entrepreneurial, highly collaborative spirit. Who wouldn't want to be a part of that?

Louise Adams: Tell us a little bit about Microsoft for space startups Australia, I think you launched it about a month or so ago. So, what are the goals for this program?

Lynn McDonald: When I moved here earlier this year, it really was impressed upon me that we need to invest in and help grow and enable this rapidly evolving industry. So, I've looked at that through a variety of different initiatives. And so, we have the Microsoft for startup program, but what we didn't have yet was a Microsoft for startup program specific to the space industry. How can we take this fantastic program with all these great resources, whether it's cloud compute, access to cloud through credit, access to different development tools, productivity tools, tools that will help businesses to grow? How can we take this and tailor it to the space industry to invest in these new businesses? We really focused in on the mentorship aspect of the program, and developing the program in a way that brings in all of the different subject matter experts across Microsoft, and the space experts. So I've got a couple of engineers that have deep expertise in the space industry in Australia, combined with the other engineers on the team and other experts across the board, from digital twin, IoT, machine learning, you name it, and we wanted to look at how can we bring all of these subject matter experts together in a way to create the support structure for space startups in Australia. To help these companies as they accelerate and grow and innovate.

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Maria Rampa: And that brings us to the end of another season. Thank you for joining us once again on Engineering Reimagined.

If you’re new to the podcast, hit the subscribe or follow button on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify and don’t forget to follow Aurecon on your favourite social media platform to stay up to date and join the conversation.

Engineering Reimagined will return in early 2022. Until then, we wish you a safe and happy holiday season. Thanks for listening..

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Show notes

Reflecting on 2021, it’s been yet another year full of challenges for all of us. We hope we have continued to inspire you with interesting stories from people and organisations who are reimagining the future and their leadership roles in it, as part of our Engineering Reimagined podcast.

With the holiday season approaching, there’s a sense of togetherness, knowing that no matter what this year has thrown at us, and no matter what is ahead, as a global community, we will continue to explore, to find solutions to the world’s greatest challenges.

For this episode, we feature highlights of Season 3’s most popular interviews, where we discussed the relationship between sleep, consciousness and creativity, Australia's energy transition and what’s ahead for the global space industry.

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