Are we doing enough to get ready for the emergence of artificial intelligence as a major driving force for transformation in our economy?

Forget the apocalyptic concerns of people like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking for a moment and consider the very real and practical ways AI is already changing the way we do things, from chatbots for customer service through to driverless vehicles in industries like mining and agriculture. This stuff is already here and it’s only going to accelerate as we start to understand and apply AI, machine learning and automation technologies across our industries.

A new report from the UK government which looks into growing the AI industry is taking its potential as an economic driver very seriously. Are we doing the same here in Australia?

Commissioned by the UK Business Secretary and Culture Secretary, the independent report titled Growing the Artificial Intelligence Industry in the UK makes plain its ambition for the UK and AI: “Our vision is for the UK to become the best place in the world for businesses developing and deploying AI to start, grow and thrive, and to realise all the benefits the technology offers.”

The report cites research which estimates AI could add an additional £630bn (AUD$1 trillion) to the UK economy by 2035. Putting aside the rubbery nature of such estimates, it’s not hard to see why this is a major game changer for the global economy.

It outlines 18 key recommendations to improve:

  • Access to data
  • Skills and education
  • Research
  • Business and industry uptake

The report shows the UK government is taking the potential and challenge of AI seriously. The report is an attempt to knit together the various strands of this emerging tech sector, from university research hubs through to business applications.

The UK has a strong position in the AI sector, with the work of the Alan Turing Institute playing a key role as an incubator for data science research and knowledge. Google’s parent company Alphabet has also been keen to work with British AI scientists and acquired the London-based AI research firm DeepMind in 2014 for around US$500 million. DeepMind is behind the AlphaGo software that has demonstrated its prowess by beating human champions in the ancient Chinese strategy game called Go.

Australia does not appear to be quite as advanced or prepared as the UK at this stage. In fact, according to some reports, we’re in danger of falling well behind global competitors.

The Infosys report into AI maturity which surveyed 1,600 businesses and IT decision makers across seven advanced economies found Australia was the least ready for AI. China, India and Germany ranked in the three highest spots, followed by the US, UK, France and Australia. In fact, businesses in Australia were least likely to be planning for AI implementation.

Speaking to the ABC, the professor of artificial intelligence at the University of New South Wales and Data61, Toby Walsh, says the tax incentives to invest in AI were not there for Australian businesses.

“Compared to some other countries, I don’t think we have enough in the way of tax incentives to encourage research and development to allow business to make the suitable investments they need to get ahead,” he said.

“But the way to stay ahead of the machines and to stay competitive is to have a highly educated workforce that’s highly adaptable and can keep ahead of automation.”

In another report, economics and strategy consulting firm AlphaBeta estimated AI was worth a potential trillion dollars to the Australian economy by 2030, but we’ve been slow to react to this opportunity.

“Right now, Australia is lagging,” AlphaBeta director Andrew Charlton says. “One in 10 Australian companies is embracing automation and this is roughly half the rate of some of our global peers.”

“It is perhaps the biggest economic opportunity that Australia has over the next 30 years. It is by far the largest source of productivity growth that we can realise,” he says.

Australia needs to wake up to the AI revolution before we are well and truly left behind. Though considering we’re still having trouble getting the NBN to work satisfactorily, maybe we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Katy Cao

View all posts