Australia risks being ‘steamrolled on AI,’ Labor’s O’Neil says

Shadow innovation minister claims government selling Australia short on AI investment

Credit: ID 4125338 © Johann Helgason

Australia risks missing out on the benefits of the explosion in the artificial intelligence (AI) sector due to a lackadaisical attitude by the federal government, according to shadow innovation minister Clare O’Neil.

PwC’s Global Artificial Intelligence Study: Exploiting the AI Revolution, estimates that AI technologies stand to make a US$15.7 trillion contribution to the global economy by 2030.

The two regions that stand to gain the most, according to PwC’s analysis, are China, which could experience a 26 per cent AI-driven AI boost to its GDP in 2030, and North America (a 14.5 per cent boost). Together the pair is expected to account for almost 70 per cent of the global economic impact.

In remarks prepared for an event held last week by think tank Per Capita, O’Neil said that AI was “probably the clearest global example” where Australian innovation policy is falling short.

In China, the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars are flowing to AI initiatives and VC funds, the Labor MP said. “Stanford has recommended the US government invest $120 billion in various AI initiatives over the next decade,” O’Neil said. “France has committed $2.4 billion over five years; the South Korean government has committed to $2.7 billion.”

The Australian government “has committed to $29.9 million over four years,” she said. “That’s million, not billion.”

“You can see what’s going to happen if nothing changes,” O’Neil said. “We’re going to get steamrolled.”

Australia spends about 1.8 per cent of GDP on R&D, while “world leading countries are spending more than 4 per cent, and the OECD average today is well above ours at about 2.4 per cent per cent,” O’Neil said.

“In fact, 2016-17 was the first year R&D spending in Australia actually went backwards.”

Government R&D spending also paints a “grim” picture, she said, with it falling by 19 per cent in real terms between 2015-16 and 2017-18.

The shadow innovation minister also argued that the government was falling short on developing a hi-tech workforce.

“According to Deloitte, over the next six years Australia will need 121,000 workers with undergraduate or postgraduate degrees in IT-related fields,” O’Neil said.

“But looking at our current trajectory, on 2018 numbers, we’ll produce about 38,000 graduates in that time - a projected shortfall of around 83,000 qualified applicants for high-skill, high-paid jobs.”

“The response from government has been virtually non-existent,” O’Neil argued. “There is a huge economic opportunity - literally tens of thousands of quality jobs of the future - right there in our line of sight. But the government has no plan to capture them.”

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