AIML heads to Canberra

front facade of Australian parliament house in Canberra at dawn

Leading experts in artificial intelligence treated Australian parliamentarians to a first-hand look at the technology’s emerging possibilities on a visit to the nation’s capital.

Story: Kurtis Eichler

AIML’s Centre for Augmented Reasoning director Professor Anton van den Hengel joined other doyens of Australian AI—Professor Joanna Batstone, Professor Svetha Venkatesh and Professor Genevieve Bell—in Canberra last week for a panel discussion. 

The wide-ranging conversation, headlined ‘Australia’s ChatGPT Moment’, focused on how AI was being used in Australia currently and its future potential.

The forum gave MPs and parliamentary staffers a chance to asked panellists about hot-button issues including data gathering, automation, cybersecurity, and AI regulation.

Parliamentary Friends of Science was established by Science & Technology Australia and is co-chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles and Liberal MP Karen Andrews. The group meets quarterly at Parliament House to celebrate Australian science.

The federal government has identified AI as a critical technology in the national interest, and last week, Minister for Industry and Science Ed Husic wrote in the Australian Financial Review that AI will pay huge economic and social dividends.

However, the public rollout of generative AI tools, such as ChatGPT, has sparked discussions around how Australia should best embrace the technology.

anton van den hengel speaking with microphone at parliament house event with university of adelaide poster behind

Professor Anton van den Hengel, director of the Centre for Augmented Reasoning and founding director of the Australian Institute for Machine Learning, speaking at 'Australia’s ChatGPT Moment’ at Parliament House in Canberra. Photo: STA

Professor van den Hengel said Australia was at an “inflection point” comparable to the discovery of electricity or the combustion engine.

“We need to make sure that we’re actively participating because we won’t drive our own agenda unless we actively grab onto this with both hands and drive it right now,” Professor van den Hengel said.

“Now is the time. We’re all dealing with this as if ChatGPT is the end. ChatGPT is the beginning and there is this wonderful research happening in Australia.

“We have the beginnings of this capability; we just need to make sure that we turn that into the world-class capability for this country.”

Professor Genevieve Bell advised that policymakers and regulators should avoid anthropomorphising technology like ChatGPT.

“All it is doing, is giving you the next word in a sequence based on being able to analyse an enormous body of work. It's not creating anything in that sense. It's not thinking, it's not hallucinating, it's not lying, it's not dissembling, there is no intentionality,” she said.

Asked by an audience member about the importance of data-gathering and what sort of datasets the country needed to control, Professor van den Hengel said Australia was in a powerful position because it holds “very good health data” due to our expansive public health systems.

“There are a lot of overseas companies coming here specifically to try and mine those datasets,” he said.

He added that Australia should recognise the value of its domestic data and handle it “in the same way we deal with other natural resources.”

“If we are going to build our own industry here, we are going to take control of this change and seize the opportunity that AI represents for Australia.”

Professor Svetha Venkatesh said that AI isn't just improving productivity, but would accelerate research and development of other technologies.

She pointed to Australian companies that are using the technology to build better, safer, and longer-lasting sodium and lithium batteries.

“I think in Australia, our small and medium industry need to build this fit for purpose type of AI so that they can remain resilient, design products faster, adapt to supply chain disruptions faster—and we need to provide that,” Professor Venkatesh said.

“If we don’t do that, this industry will just get outcompeted and no one’s going to wait for us to find the next shiny thing to help them—we need to help them now.”

Asked where Australia fits in the development of AI, particularly as tech giants in the US are leading the way, Professor Joanna Batstone, director of the Monash Data Futures Institute, said Australia had to work out its role in the global dialogue around AI.

“This year is really the year of AI and the discussions around ChatGPT have fuelled a different level of energy in the conversation,” Professor Batstone said.

“As we think about the opportunities in Australia, one of the things that we have to look at is our level of confidence in our sovereign capabilities and the investments that we need to make locally to enable us to be able to take advantage of the economic opportunity that we all see ahead of us in the context of AI,” she said.

Australia's ChatGPT Moment’, a Parliamentary Friends of Science event, was held at Parliament House, Canberra, 31 May 2023, and was sponsored by the Australian Institute for Machine Learning and by the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.

Tagged in AI policy, Australian AI, Australian AI research