Quantum computing, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity services and autonomous vehicles will come under increased government scrutiny, particularly around foreign interference, as part of the federal government’s new critical technologies framework and action plan.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the strategy at the inaugural Sydney Dialogue event, run by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), on Wednesday morning.
The blueprint “aims to balance the economic opportunities of critical technologies with their national security risk”.
“Nations at the leading edge of technology have greater economic, political and military power. And in turn greater capacity to influence the norms and values that will shape technology development in the years to come,” Mr Morrison said in the speech.
“Australia’s future security and prosperity depends on us being part of the technology revolutions shaping the world. The blueprint sets out a vision for protecting and promoting critical technologies in our national interest.
“It aims to balance the economic opportunities of critical technologies with their national security tasks and it gives us the right framework to work domestically and with like-minded countries to work to further develop these technologies.”
It includes a list of 63 critical technologies and nine areas of initial focus. Technologies included in the list will not be immediately subject to increased regulation, but are being flagged as on the government’s radar and will potentially be further scrutinised in terms of foreign interference and investment.
The initial areas of focus in critical technologies are critical minerals extraction and processing, advanced communications, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity technologies, genomics and genetic engineering, novel antibiotics, antivirals and vaccines, low emissions alternative fuels, quantum technologies and autonomous vehicles, drones, swarming and collaborative robotics.
“The list signals to government, industry and academia the technology slated as critical for Australia today or those expected to become so within the next decade. Through this signal we intend to drive consistency in decision-making and focus our investment,” Mr Morrison said.
The list was created by using an “advanced foresight capability” within Defence Science and Technology Group, and consultations with various stakeholders, including Universities Australia.
“The announcement recognises the world-class research and reputation of Australia’s universities, and the role university experts play in shaping the nation’s technology output,” Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said.
“The ambition to promote and protect the sovereignty of Australia’s IP and assets is strongly supported by our members. It is essential for Australia’s economic and social wellbeing that we find the right balance between collaborating with global partners and understanding Australia’s own needs and priorities.”
The blueprint lists several risks associated with critical technologies, including a lack of competitive and diverse markets, highly geographically concentrated supply chains, undermined institutional integrity and the exploitation of Australian knowledge.
The new list and increased scrutiny on these technologies seems ostensibly aimed at China’s growing technology powers, and a further effort to discourse or block universities and researchers from collaborating with China on national security technologies, following changes to foreign investment laws earlier this year.
“We will place Australia’s national interest, including its prosperity, security and social cohesion, at the core of all critical technologies investment and funding decisions,” the blueprint says.
“Risks associated with some forms of foreign investment have increased and evolved amid rapid changes in technology and the geopolitical landscape. The government will also continue to ensure that balanced and ongoing due-diligence policies, controls and procedures – which screen for and mitigate holistic risks to the national interest – apply to its own investment and procurement decisions.”
The new Critical Technologies Policy Coordination Office, housed within PM&C, also released an action plan to operationalise the blueprint, saying that for each of the critical technologies in the list, the government will apply a “rigorous analytical framework to determine where policy gaps exist or may emerge”.
The action plan lists four types of options available to government on these matters, ranging from plans and blueprints to restrictions and new laws.
In particular situations, the federal government will look to directly regulate the economic and social activity, or divert resources from areas previously backed by the private sector, and establish a sovereign capability in the critical technology, such as what it is pursuing with a domestic mRNA vaccine manufacturing capability.
It will also look at pre-emptive support such as the Modern Manufacturing Fund, and responsive support such as new taskforces and the global visa scheme.
The Prime Minister used the speech to try to shift the focus of the controversial AUKUS agreement with the US and UK onto other critical technologies rather than the submarines, which are not expected to be in use until the 2040s.
“To state the obvious, AUKUS is about much more than nuclear submarines. AUKUS is a broad and adaptable partnership that will drive our technology and capability cooperation to meet the challenges of the 21st century in our region, the Indo-Pacific region,” Mr Morrison said.
The initial focus of this will be on artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and undersea capabilities, and department officials have been given 90 days to report back on a work plan for these technologies. The AUKUS agreement will involve the exchange of information, personnel and advanced technology and capabilities between the three nations.
The blueprint and action plan come just days after the government unveiled new voluntary critical technology supply chain principles, which include a recommendation that businesses consider and seek guidance on the influence of foreign governments on their tech suppliers.
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