11/11/2020

As we slowly recover from incessant browser refreshing and flashing red-blue maps tracking the US election, to face another unchartered week ahead, one question remains: did anyone really win? Or did we all lose?

Two things seem especially precious to how our democracies can succeed in a pandemic-ridden world:

  1. Collaborating with each other: Collaboration helps everything progress. Its acceleration effect is especially powerful for new technology, which Australia must embrace to succeed in a post COVID world.

    Pre-Covid Australia was very poor at collaboration. In 2017 the OECD found Australia was the worst of the 29 analysed countries in relation to businesses collaborating on innovation with higher education or research institutions. Australia was the 4th worst of those countries for businesses collaborating with international firms while innovating products. And only 24.9% of Australian firms cooperated on innovative activities (the OECD average is 32.4%).

    As CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall said at an October CEDA webinar, “we’re a very competitive country. We love to compete in the sporting field. But it seems what we most like to do is compete against each other…We need to be smarter than that.”

    Since COVID, Australia has come a long way from the OECD’s Report. Previously unconnected individuals and institutions are finally talking to each other and our technology is reflecting that. Many sectors – from healthcare, to banking, consumer goods and beyond – have become less siloed and it is unlocking innovation’s benefits for us.

    Also in Dr Marshall’s words, “an outcome of the crisis is that we’ve had to collaborate in a way we haven’t done before.” Whether between state and federal governments, public and private sector, research scientists being placed in business and doctors going from hospitals into homes: the way Australians have been cooperating in the face of the coronavirus is unprecedented.
     
  2. Trust: What is the secret tech sauce that encourages societal collaboration, to reap innovation’s benefits? We think the answer is trust. Speaking on AI and ethics at the University of Melbourne last year, Chair of the UK’s Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation Roger Taylor explained why:

    “One of the main things that is holding [societies] back here is a lack of trust. A sense that technology is going off the rails…that data is being used in ways that are not helping [people] but designed to exploit them….all these elements are conspiring to prevent us from getting to grips with these new technologies and using them in a way that could be hugely beneficial for our populations, if we can find a way through that public trust issue.”

    Where does Australia stand on trust? In 2019 Lloyd’s Register Foundation and Gallup found Australians were among the most fearful of AI in the developed world: 44% of Australians believed AI would harm them in the next 20 years compared to the 30% average.

    Combining these findings with Wellcome’s global science and health monitor shows that countries with a higher belief in AI’s harms also generally have lower levels of trust in scientists, as the following graph shows.

    But that graph also shows Australia bucks this correlation. We have one of the largest proportion of people who highly trust scientists, about a third of our population. Australia also has high trust levels in medical and health advice, doctors and nurses, and confidence in hospitals and health clinics – which should be even higher post COVID given our (and New Zealand’s) unique global success. 

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    So our pre-COVID belief that AI would harm us is not because we don’t trust our scientists or health practitioners.

    Are we lacking trust in other institutions? Democracy 2025’s Survey found Australia’s trust in government reached its lowest level on record in 2019. Only a quarter of Australians said they had confidence in their political leaders and institutions.

    What’s more fascinating is what has happened since. The Survey found that since COVID, Australia’s trust in federal government and our public service has significantly increased to 54%. It also notes our government is perceived to be listening to the advice of those that Australians already trust greatly: scientific experts. What about the US? The Survey found its political trust sat at 34% pre-COVID, and it hasn’t moved.

Where to from here? Australia is in a rare moment of high collaboration, we have underlying strong confidence in science and we have improved trust in many institutions including government. Our previously high fear of new technology hasn’t been re-analysed since COVID, but we’re willing to bet our attitudes may have changed there too: witness the tens of millions of GP consultations held online, the hundreds of thousands of ePrescriptions dispensed and the widespread use of previously enigmatic QR codes from cafes and pubs to sporting events and beyond.

The pandemic has been destructive enough, for us not to try to maintain in any way we can silver linings like our increased trust and collaboration in technology. Industry must consider public trust when making any fundamental decision in designing and deploying new technology. This necessitates changing the underlying evaluation frameworks for any innovative developments.

CSIRO’s leading digital research network, Data 61, and its Ethics Framework for the Australian Government was a step in the right direction to establishing that cross-industry, institutionalised framework. But the UK’s Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation – a permanent, independent “trust broker” between industry and consumers, which advises government and regulators on how to maximise data-driven technology’s benefits - goes much further.

 

Some recent insights you may be interested in:

 

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