Govt’s ‘AI Action Plan’ is lacking action

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

Funding for Australia’s ‘AI Action Plan’ remains locked up in the Industry department nearly a year after it was announced, with a key business group pressing the government to release the $124 million promised in last year’s budget.

Despite being budgeted more than $22 million this financial year to initiate the plan’s four major measures, the Industry department has allocated only a third of this so far – all to CSIRO – and is yet to administer a single grant from either of the AI grant programs it is running.

The slow rollout is a concern for the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA), which warns the pace and design of the plan is accelerating an AI talent exodus.

An AI National AI Centre is the only program to receive funding so far under the government’s action plan

Australia’s AI Action Plan was announced in the lead up to last year’s May budget as a key part of the Coalition’s $1.2 billion digital package.

CSIRO has been allocated $44.79 million over four years under the AI Action Plan, and will create a National Artificial Intelligence Centre to coordinate Australia’s AI expertise and capabilities.

The centre opened this year within CSIRO’s Data61 and is led by Microsoft’s former AI sales and strategy chief, but won’t hold its first public event until March.

A spokesperson for the agency confirmed it had been allocated $7.13 million for 2021/22, with the remainder to come over the following three years. This will be provided to the agency against “agreed milestones”.

CSIRO is also delivering a scholarship program for AI graduates over several years and partnering with universities on a separate challenge program for students. Both initiatives are on track, according to the agency.

However, the programs run by the Industry department are facing pressure to stay on schedule. No further details have emerged about an AI and Digital Capability Centres initiative, despite this program requiring a competitive process and all four centres needing to be established by July under the plan’s schedule.

The largest grant program, a $33.7 million four-year initiative for businesses to develop AI-based solutions for government defined national challenges, has not yet been launched either.

A much smaller five-year, $12.0 million grant program offering co-funding to projects that build AI capabilities in regional areas opened in January, and accepted applications for just six weeks under its first round.

These regional grants will be assessed in the next two weeks, with another two-to-three weeks for approvals. But it will take as long as six weeks to notify winners and award the grants, bringing an announcement date to around May.

An independent committee of AI experts has been appointed to assess the applications and provide advice to the minister, who will have final say on who receives the money.

A spokesperson for the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources declined to detail which programs have received how much funding so far, but confirmed only a third of the current year’s budget has been administered.

“To date $7.13 million is allocated, with announcements regarding the AI Solutions to Build a Stronger Australia program and the AI and Digital Capability Centres to be made in the second half of the 2021-22 financial year,” the spokesperson told InnovationAus.

“The Department is regularly meeting with key stakeholders from across Australia regarding the continued rollout of the plan, and is committed to delivering the plan’s programs as quickly as possible while ensuring quality program design.”

The AIIA has raised concerns about the the roll out with government, warning the current pace will mean funding likely won’t reach businesses until very late this financial year, more than a year after the plan was announced.

“We’ve got a window of opportunity to ensure that we embed AI in our critical industries so we don’t lose talent,” AIIA general manager Policy & Advocacy,” Simon Bush said.

“Talent is scarce on the ground. We do have niche capability around AI and quantum talent and they are getting poached. They are going overseas. More will get poached. So there’s a real speed and agility required to execute.

“Money announced last May still hasn’t hit the street and we are going into a late March Budget and then an election. So we could well be in a scenario that that money may not be in people’s pockets until the middle of this year.”

This would be about half way into the current two-year window Australia has to fully capitalise on the AI opportunity, Mr Bush told InnovationAus.

The AIIA had proposed a much larger investment in AI ahead of last year’s election – roughly double the $124 million ultimately announced for the Action Plan. Mr Bush welcomes the funding as a “good start” but says it could have been better targeted at commercialising AI research and development rather than regional and SME support.

“Giving money to SMEs and regional businesses is really not going to shift the dial to realise that $315 billion AI growth opportunity [predicted by CSIRO]. We need to be having a more strategic approach.”

An earlier version of this article indicated the AI and Digital Capability Centres program would be allocated $9 million based on budget statements and CSIRO’s allocation. However, it is unclear if this is the correct amount. The Industry department has declined to confirm the amount allocated to the AI and Digital Capability Centres program.

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