Denham Sadler
April 23, 2019

Labor AI centre set for Melbourne

AI

Labor AI centre set for Melbourne

AI ethics research: Labor's $4 million centre is bound for Melbourne.

Labor’s planned $4 million national centre of excellence for artificial intelligence will be based in Melbourne, with the Opposition turning its attention towards using technology for social good.

Labor first announced its policy for a centre to study AI ethics and the future of work in July last year, with $3 million in funding. It has now partnered with Victoria to base the centre in Melbourne if it wins the upcoming May election, with the state government also pledging $1 million towards it.

The Opposition is also in discussions with major tech VC funds and is seeking a commitment on more investments in ethically-focused AI companies.

The Melbourne AI centre was announced on Tuesday morning by shadow treasurer Chris Bowen, shadow digital economy minister Ed Husic and Victorian treasurer Tim Pallas.

Mr Husic said he had been in discussions with previous Victorian innovation minister Philip Dalidakis on areas for collaboration, and this continued with Mr Dalidakis’ replacement, Martin Pakula.

“Martin Pakula was exceptionally keen to see the centre down here and rightly makes the case that Melbourne has done a big job in attracting tech talent to the city. It was really a combination of a very enthusiastic and active government and a strong tech startup presence that made Melbourne a logical choice,” Mr Husic told InnovationAus.com.

But the AI centre will have a clear national focus, with Labor hoping that state and territory governments will look to establish their own AI hubs to work with the national effort.

The centre will provide a platform for collaboration between governments at all levels, educational institutions and the private industry, and will “guide broader application of the technology for public and commercial benefits”.

It will also feature an AI lab to “champion the development of ethical AI” and an artificial intelligence accelerator, modelled on Stone & Chalk’s fintech offering.

“The big philosophy behind the centre is to start getting the national consciousness around AI, both its benefits and also some of the potential drawbacks, being considered in a central point - to think ahead about maximising the benefit and sidestepping some of the problems that might emerge, specifically in the labour market area,” Mr Husic said.

“The centre will be the common ground to bring together businesses, governments, unions and the community to see how we can put AI to work and do it in a much better way than what we’ve got at the moment.”

The federal government last year committed $30 million for an AI roadmap and ethics framework, but Labor said the Coalition is dragging its feet on the new technology.

“Apparently they’ve got an AI roadmap that no-one should see. It’s nuts that they wouldn’t even give us a private meeting on where the roadmap on AI is at. They’ve seen AI as a basis for a few announcements and then nothing else follows, which is pretty much been the way that innovation under the Coalition has been managed,” Mr Husic said.

“We can’t do that. We want the centre to start progressing the nation’s thinking around what it needs to do in this space.”

While the $4 million pledged to the centre is modest compared to what other nation’s are spending on AI, it’s just the beginning of a bigger commitment from a potential Labor government, Mr Husic said.

“People shouldn’t confuse the amount of money being directed to the establishment of a centre versus a much higher priority of national investment required in AI. That will come next. We want to get organised and see the centre as the primary vehicle to begin that journey,” he said.

“The main commitment is to flag that we believe more needs to be done, with better coordination. This is the first step but there’s a lot more to come.”

Mr Husic said he has also been in discussions with major local tech VC firms in an effort to secure a commitment to invest in ethically-focused AI companies that may emerge from the centre.

“Major tech firms normally have their own VC funds, and I’ve begun discussions around getting them to commit a portion of those funds to support the AI startups that might emerge out of the accelerator and are thinking about the application of AI for social good,” he said.

“We need some of those startups and the work of those startups to be applied with the community benefit in mind. And this is a way that technology can practically give back to communities by supporting these types of startups and their work.”

While none of the firms have made a firm commitment yet, Mr Husic has said they have been open to the concept and that it’s time for big tech to focus on the social good.

“They can’t privatise the profits and socialise the disruption, and then expect the government to pick up the tab afterwards. They’ve got to form their minds around how that occurs and what they’re prepared to do. We’re starting the public discussions on this and elevating the focus - something should happen,” he said.

The AI commitment is one of the first campaign announcement focused specifically on technology so far. Labor is expected to be making a number of further policy reveals in the space in the coming weeks as it looks to position itself as the forward-looking party, with a major announcement understood to be coming next week.

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