Why must Australia invest in AI research and development?

By Misha Schubert, Chief Executive Officer, Science & Technology Australia

This article is an extract from Artificial intelligence: your questions answered, a report published in partnership with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).  

Most technological advances spark incremental progress. And then a few come along that are truly game-changing.

AI is one of those truly transformative technologies. It’s set to revolutionise our lives and workplaces at rapid speed in the coming decade. It will potentially reshape almost every job, industry and life. It’s already being deployed across a wide array of Australian industries and sectors.

In the legal profession, AI is now being used to scan and prepare legal briefs.1 There’s also a growing array of analytics applications being used to save people time and resources.2

A posed stock photograph of a radiographer looking at a chest x-ray on a computer screen

Many parts of health care stand to benefit from a data-driven approach, including image analysis to improve the detection and diagnosis of disease. Photo: iStock.

In medicine and health care, the potential of AI is enormous, but yet to be truly realised.3 Many parts of health care stand to benefit from a data-driven approach, including image analysis to improve the detection and diagnosis of disease.4 Analysis of patient data has helped to predict and prevent falls among at-risk patients.5 However, these game-changing possibilities need more work and more investment to reach their full lifesaving potential.

A uniquely Australian example can be found in Kakadu National Park. Indigenous owners are working with researchers to support ecosystem resilience through a combination of Indigenous knowledge, technology and AI.6 Under the direction of Indigenous rangers, drone footage collects data over areas of the national park that are difficult to access. AI is used to scan hours of video footage to identify para grass—an introduced fodder crop that’s displacing the native grasses, which are a key habitat for magpie geese. Strong numbers of magpie geese indicate that the country is healthy. Adaptive management has already seen the population in one wetland increase from 50 to 1,800 birds.7

So why should Australia invest in AI R&D? If we want to secure the economic opportunities that will flow from AI, and shape those frontier technologies as they evolve, we must invest in a specialised, skilled workforce and advances in key technologies.8 If we don’t, we’ll be left behind—and our children and grandchildren will miss out on vast opportunities.

Australia’s Artificial Intelligence Roadmap cites three pivotal areas in which AI has the potential to shape our nation: natural resources and the environment; health, ageing and disability; and cities, towns and infrastructure.9 Those diverse fields highlight the potential breadth of AI applications in widely divergent aspects of our lives.

Other countries are investing, and investing big.

The biggest players in the AI game are the US and China.

The American National AI Initiative was unveiled in 2019.10 It drives the safe development, testing and deployment of AI technologies. The strategy recognises the importance of international collaboration, while striving to put the US at the front of global AI research. The US Government’s investment in AI projects amounted to around US$5 billion in 2020.11 In 2021, the National Artificial Intelligence Initiative Office was launched to play a coordinating role for all AI research and policymaking across academia, government and industry.12

China’s strategy, announced in 2017, aims to make China an AI leader by 2030. It has a key focus on technologies such as unpiloted aerial vehicles and voice and image recognition. While exact government funding amounts aren’t known, it’s clear that China is significantly upping its game in research activity, with very steep growth in publications on AI.13

The Canadian Government announced a national AI plan in 2017, investing C$125 million (~A$137 million) to support the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy.14 The strategy sets ambitious goals to attract and retain world-class AI researchers, nurture a collaborative AI ecosystem, support national AI initiatives, and contextualise AI work in its ethical and societal implications.

man writing math on whitepa

Australia needs to be in the race and to invest—at scale, and ensuring broad inclusion—in AI R&D. Photo: AIML

In 2018, the UK pumped nearly £1 billion (~A$1.87 billion) into AI research.15 It released its National AI Strategy in September 2021—a ‘10-year plan to make Britain a global AI superpower’.

In South Korea, the government allocated ₩1.7 trillion (~A$1.1 billion) in 2020 for data, networks and AI under its National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence.16 The strategy includes nine plans to drive advancements in the AI ecosystem, AI use and people-centred AI.

Singapore released its National AI Strategy in 2019.17 Its goal is to propel ‘Singapore as a leader in developing and deploying scalable, impactful AI solutions, in key sectors of high value and relevance to our citizens and businesses.’ The Singaporean Government has supported the strategy with funding totalling S$680 million (~A$695 million). The money will support projects in fundamental AI research, translational research, and industry– research collaborations.

India is a very strong player, too. Its government released an AI strategy in 2018, identifying areas of focus in agriculture, health and education.18 This was backed by ₹7,000 crore (A$1.3 billion). The Indian Government is also working on its National Programme for Artificial Intelligence, with a goal of ‘making India the global leader in AI, ensuring responsible and transformational AI for all.’19

In the Australian context, the potential uses of AI to create safer and more interesting jobs and take on tasks that are either dangerous or repetitious are almost limitless. And the technology itself is even evolving our legal concepts.

In a landmark judgement in August 2021, Australia’s Federal Court ruled that an AI can be named as an inventor in a patent application—a decision that challenged the prevailing thought that AI systems can’t be truly creative—which was subsequently overturned on appeal.20

As the world strives to deepen AI capabilities, diversity must be a critical policy consideration. AI has the power to radically transform our society, and we need to think constantly and simultaneously about the ethics and social implications as we develop the research. We need the best minds, of all genders, focused on this task. At the moment, only 22% of AI researchers are women.21 Given the huge ethical and societal implications of AI research and its applications, we need to ensure a diversity of brainpower, perspectives and experience to ensure optimal outcomes for our societies.

Diversity of thought also comes from including and incorporating other world views and cultural perspectives into AI research. Indigenous knowledge systems contain a wealth of experience, particularly to understand and live sustainably within our environment. Including Indigenous knowledge to inform AI research will lead to better, more holistic and more inclusive AI.22

The CSIRO and Data61 forecast that AI benefits will be worth $22.17 trillion to the global economy by 2030.23 They predict that Australia could boost its economy by $315 billion by 2028 from digital technologies including AI.

The CSIRO says that, in the next decade, by deepening our use of digital technologies, we could snare a slice of $30–50 billion in future Asia–Pacific markets for healthcare innovations, prevent up to 1,100 road deaths a year, and boost the farm-gate value of agriculture by $20 billion.

It will be a race to secure the benefits AI has to offer societies and nations. Countries around the globe are setting forward-looking strategies, with big ambitions, and backing them with significant funding. Australia needs to be in the race and to invest—at scale, and ensuring broad inclusion—in AI R&D. It’s a powerful investment in securing our future prosperity.

Correction: 5 January 2023
An earlier version of this article misstated the Australian court that ruled that an AI system can be named an inventor in a patent application. It was the Federal Court, not the High Court. 
In April 2022—shortly after this article was originally published—that decision was overturned on appeal by the Full Court of the Federal Court. Currently in Australia an AI system cannot be named as an inventor in a patent application.

(1) ‘Legal research, minus the lengthy search’, Judicata, no date, online.

(2) Daniel Faggella, AI in law and legal practice—a comprehensive view of 35 current applications, Emerj Artificial Intelligence Research, 7 September 2021, online.

(3) Bertalan Mesko, Marton Gorog, ‘A short guide for medical professionals in the era of artificial intelligence’, npj Digital Medicine, 24 September 2020, 3(126), online.

(4) Daniel Greenfield, ‘Artificial intelligence in medicine: applications, implications, and limitations’, SITN: Science in the News, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University, 19 June 2019, online.

(5) Juliet Van Wagenen, ‘Healthcare analytics point providers to patients that need the most care’, HealthTech, 17 April 2017, online.

(6) ‘AI transforms Kakadu management’, news release, Microsoft, 20 November 2019, online.

(7) Larry Marshall, ‘AI + Indigenous knowledge a powerful tool posing critical questions’, CSIRO Algorithm, 27 November 2019, online.

(8) Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, ‘Techtonic 2.0—How to AI-proof our workforce’, Australian Government, YouTube, no date, online.

(9) Data61, Artificial intelligence roadmap, CSIRO, online.

(10) National Artificial Intelligence Initiative, US Government, online.

(11) Neil Savage, ‘The race to the top among the world’s leaders in artificial intelligence’, Nature, 9 December 2020, online.

(12) ‘The White House Launches the National Artificial Intelligence Initiative Office’, news release, The White House, 12 January 2021, online.

(13) Savage, ‘The race to the top among the world’s leaders in artificial intelligence’.

(14) ‘Pan-Canadian AI Strategy’, CIFAR, no date, online.

(15) ‘National AI Strategy’, UK Government, September 2021, online.

(16) ‘National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence’, South Korean Government, 28 October 2019, online.

(17) ‘National Artificial Intelligence Strategy: Advancing our Smart Nation’, Singaporean Government, November 2019, online.

(18) ‘AI policy and national strategies’, in Artificial Intelligence Index report 2021, Stanford University, 2021, online.

(19) ‘India’s AI marathon has begun well’, Hindustan Times, 18 September 2021, online.

(20) Alexandra Jones, ‘Artificial intelligence can now be recognised as an inventor after historic Australian court decision’, ABC News, 1 August 2021, online.

(21) Natalie Marchant, ‘Only 22% women in AI jobs—the gender gap in science and technology, in numbers’, The Print, 17 July 2021, online.

(22) Rachael Bolton, ‘Indigenous knowledge systems in the age of AI’, InnovationAus.com, 3 December 2021, online.

(23) Data61, Artificial intelligence roadmap.

front cover of the report - Artificial intelligence: Your questions answered.

This article is an extract from Artificial intelligence: your questions answered, a report published in partnership with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).  

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