Artificial intelligence (AI) is steadily becoming a familiar tool for many Australians. We have come to know it through our pocket voice assistants, like Siri and Alexa, and as the brains behind Google’s predictive searches. Australian businesses, particularly in the mining sector, view it as a means to gain a competitive advantage, and we have even seen its potential to fight COVID-19.
As AI begins to permeate every aspect of our lives, the Australian government has recognised the economic and social opportunities it affords us in its newly proposed AI Action Plan. The discussion paper, released on 29 October 2020, is the latest in a suite of Australian initiatives targeting AI regulation and development, following on from the AI Ethics Framework. The Government is accepting submissions in response to its Action Plan until 27 November 2020.
While Australia has previously been criticised for its lack of direction in adopting AI, the Commonwealth Government has flagged an intention to reinvent its approach by coordinating Government policy and national capability to make Australia a leading digital economy by 2030. To achieve this vision, the Government is currently seeking input on how best to integrate AI in four key domains.
AI in Business
The Government has recognised business adoption of AI as a key driver of the Australian economy. Although digital innovation in Australia is estimated to contribute around A$315 billion to the economy over the next decade, the Government’s Action Plan notes that Australian businesses may still fall below world standards in terms of the innovation and collaboration required to take full benefit of AI.
With this enormous economic potential, the Action Plan centres around initiatives to arm businesses with the capability to develop, adopt and adapt to AI, including:
- incentives for the uptake of digital technologies, starting with the Commonwealth’s commitment of A$800 million;
- education programs to lift directors’ digital literacy, including to address areas of business risk; and
- a focus on increased collaboration between business experts and AI professionals.
As part of this program, the Action Plan has identified the importance of access to ‘high quality, de-sensitised, ethically and legally sourced’ data sets. The Action Plan recognises that the foundations for increased AI uptake lie in improving the trust in, and availability of, public data. Some of this may be achieved through regulatory reforms such as the introduction of the Consumer Data Right, reviews of the Privacy Act and the ACCC’s Digital Platforms inquiry. However, more ambitious reform, akin to what we have seen in the UK and Europe, may be required if we are to see the full benefit of AI in Australia.
The Action Plan also recognises the importance of leveraging Australia’s existing AI expertise to create new areas of competitive advantage. It suggests mobilising Australia’s research capabilities to areas with strong export potential. CSIRO Data61’s AI technology roadmap has pinpointed the following key areas for AI development:
- health, aging and disability, where integrating AI into existing parts of the health system can create quality care;
- cities, towns and infrastructure, to improve safety, efficiency and cost effectiveness; and
- natural resources and environment, to improve the productivity of agriculture, mining and environmental management.
Whilst the Action Plan notes existing and proposed levels of investment by the Government in supporting AI research and industry-research collaboration, it has to be recognised that the level of support and funding available for this type of research and innovation in Australia falls far behind that in other economies.
AI and People
Artificial intelligence thrives when there are skilled people to use and learn from it. As such, the third area of focus involves empowering the Australian workforce to adapt to the opportunities created by AI and possess the necessary skills to engage with it. Artificial intelligence is already changing the nature of work as we know it: a recent survey published by Deloitte noted that in 71% of organisations that had adopted AI, the technology had already changed their company’s job roles and necessary skills.
The AI Action Plan zeroes in on addressing the ‘AI skill gap’ through educating and investing in Australia’s existing and future workforce. In terms of what the new wave of AI-savvy workers could look like, according to CSIRO Data61, employees with AI building capabilities are most sought after, utilising advanced mathematics and computational logic skills. However, the Deloitte survey highlights the equal importance of ‘AI translators’: individuals capable of working with both back-end technical staff and the business, such as UI designers and change management experts.
AI in Society
The Action Plan recognises that growth of both investment in, and uptake of, AI in Australia is dependent upon building public trust in AI. There is still a perception in Australia that AI poses threats to individuals – there are fears that it may embed bias or discrimination, may not be inclusive or available to all members of society, or may not reflect our society’s values in decision-making.
Building on the AI Ethics Framework, the Government notes the expectation of transparency, accountability and mechanisms for appropriate recourse in AI systems. The risk of algorithmic bias and discrimination has prompted discussion of an ‘ethics by design’ approach to AI development.
The Government proposes that these issues are addressed by:
- a human-centred approach to AI, to maximise benefits for all Australians;
- revisiting existing regulatory frameworks to ensure advances in AI embody societal values;
- providing clearer guidance for businesses on how these frameworks apply to the development and use of AI; and
- ensuring that Australia participates in international standards development.
The Action Plan will largely be shaped by the submissions from stakeholders. However, some key trends we may see play out are:
- increased investment in data and AI research institutions;
- the possibility of partnerships between public research organisations and SMEs, to stimulate research uptake;
- a push for high quality, clean data, and an expectation of investment in data standardisation and quality control measures;
- incentives to upskill new and existing employees in AI capabilities;
- a focus on ethics by design principles in Australian regulations; and
- renewed focus on regulatory frameworks and guidance on their application to AI development and use.
The Action Plan is very much focussed on the opportunities posed by AI. It leaves consideration of the challenges and threats posed by the use of AI to another day. We expect more of those issues to be canvassed when the Government releases the results of the current trial of Australia’s AI Ethics Principles, and when the Australian Human Rights Commission releases its final report on Human Rights and Technology, both of which we expect to see in the new year.
Authors: Erin Kirker, Luke Standen, Lesley Sutton