A conversation with… Dr Christina Swart-Opperman: An African lady fascinated by robotics

A conversation with… Dr Christina Swart-Opperman: An African lady fascinated by robotics

It is not so often that one hears of an accomplished academic and corporate professional who goes back to school in pursuit of researching a topic purely because that topic could address a national issue. And choose an African university because it should be so.

But here was I listening to Dr Christina Swart-Opperman narrate how she literally left the job as director at PwC Namibia to pursue a second doctorate in a quest to, hopefully, “guide organisations that want to put a team together, to say at that point in time what is the most appropriate composition for a team.” If that sentence does make the concept appear simple is solely because of nearly an hour that Dr Swart-Opperman spent explaining the concept to me.

And, boy, the way she comes alive when talking about artificial intelligence, neuroscience and robotics. Her face radiates with passion – like a teenager’s would when speaking of the latest fashion. In fact, she reveals that eventually she would want to take her doctorate research results and link them to artificial intelligence, “because that is where my real passion is, and maybe even build a robot or two.” She interjects the sentence with a laugh, before saying: “No, I am fascinated by robotics.”

And she really is fascinated by robotics – she trails off about how the spread of Ebola virus could have been contained had robots been attending to patients, how in Japan robots are looking after the elderly.

“The other day I read that robots are starting to teach themselves skills via the internet. Can you imagine the consequence of that?” It is frightening, I respond. Yes but… she then speaks of her hopes for the future. “God willing, to link the emotional aspect of my artificial intelligence to patients suffering from Alzheimer’s, because if you can experience the emotions, because that is what makes us human, with forgotten memories, you can improve the quality of life of people. So that is where I am moving towards.”

Dr Swart-Opperman is an industrial psychologist – and had her own consultancy practice which was bought up by PwC in 2010/11, just around the time when she had won a seat on the Windhoek City Council for Windhoek East constituency for the 2010-2015 period, which she didn’t serve long because she had to focus on her career. But we will come back to politics later. For the record she was also the 2002 Namibia Economist Business Woman of the Year, and the founder of Dr Christina Swart-Opperman Aids Orphans Foundation, a charity organisation looking after orphaned children.

Currently she is a senior lecturer at the Harold Pupkewitz Business School at Namibia University of Science and Technology and the presidential appointee on the University of Namibia Council.

So why is this industrial psychologist interested in neuroscience and artificial intelligence? Apparently about five years ago she said to herself: “Okay, if I see myself making a contribution for the next 20 years, God willing, what do I have to offer to the Namibian business community that is new and novel and different?”

“And because I am a professional, as you know I am an industrial psychologist, I am in a knowledge economy. That means you have to sell knowledge. And as horrible as this sounds, knowledge becomes outdated, you know, and I am not implying that what you have learnt many years ago does not always apply anymore,” she adds.

“Now a couple of years ago I became very interested in neuroscience – that is now on the brain. But I am specifically interested in affective neuroscience. I really believe that what people feel determine their entire outlook on life, and the way you look at life determines what you will succeed in and whether you have perseverance, if you have a passion to take that through,” she says.

Two and a half years later she is about to complete her doctorate at the University of Cape Town (UCT).
“The gap I identified in literature, is that we all come with brilliant ideas – that is one part of innovation. Now someone must go and implement the idea. So I am taking an existing theory of a neuroscientist and I test that from an industrial psychological lens. So that is where the fascination comes in.”

And she chose UCT because it is the best business school in Africa. “I did not want to study overseas because I am an African,” she says, and qualifies that by saying that people can succeed better if they know and keep their identity, their roots.

So we turned the conversation to politics, which she turned her hand to and won the Windhoek council seat on a Swapo ticket, only to quit. Why? “At the time my consulting business was taken over by an international audit firm, and being part of an international audit firm you cannot be politically exposed. And I went, at the time, to the relevant authorities and the powers and I also asked for their advice, on what they thought I should be doing. I had to choose… And that is why I had to leave it,” she says. But she would apparently go back if given the chance.

“I loved it, it was one of the most rewarding experiences,” she says of her short time in the council, but adds that the time also made her realise that politics is not easy. But “if the opportunity is there and it is the right thing to do, I would be open for it. Am always open for opportunities,” she says.

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