Industry urges caution on ‘critical tech’ regulation

James Riley
Editorial Director

The Technology Council of Australia has urged caution on closer scrutiny and tighter regulations for ‘critical technologies’ on national security grounds, saying these new technologies were equally critical to the nation’s economic objectives and needed access to markets and investment to thrive.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday outlined a critical technologies framework that would put tighter controls around companies working on technologies ranging from quantum computing and artificial intelligence to autonomous drones and cybersecurity.

The framework aims to ensure that the intellectual property associated with a list of 63 critical technologies is retained in sovereign or friendly control and protected from the possibility of malign foreign influence.

Kate Pounder
Technology Council of Australia CEO Kate Pounder

But Tech Council chief executive Kate Pounder said that to grow domestic capability within strategic industries, they must be economically resilient over the long term – including via global trade and exporting and accessing global finance and talent.

“Australia needs to take great care that in defining an application as a critical technology, this does not lead to overly stringent regulation that curtails the ability of these industries to serve overseas customers, receive investment from overseas financiers and VC firms, collaborate on global R&D projects, and attract global talent to work on projects,” Ms Pounder said.

“That would stymie their growth, or see activity relocate overseas.”

“Rather, we need to ensure that if a technology and industry is genuinely critical to our national interest, we must aspire for it to be sustainable, because this also ensures it is secure.”

“That means we must be clear on the precise policy goals we have for these technologies and ensure policy interventions are proportionate and still enable new industries and capabilities to grow through these vital global links.”

The Tech Council says the geostrategic tensions that have led other markets in the region to face unrest or crackdowns on investment has opened an opportunity for Australia to attract a bigger share of global investment and R&D activity in critical technology areas.

This trend improves the attractiveness of Australia as a regional hub in Australia.

“Google’s recent announcement of a $1 billion infrastructure R&D partnership is evidence of that,” Ms Pounder said.

The Tech Council aims to have 1 million people in Australia employed in tech-related jobs by 2025 and for the industry to grow to a $250 billion contribution to GDP by 2030.

Labor industry spokesman Ed Husic was scathing of the announcement, saying it highlighted the government’s inconsistent approach to the technology industry.

He said the government has arrived late with its support for the quantum industry, just as it was late with support for artificial intelligence work – and that it had arrived behind the industry’s own actions.

“[Tuesday’s] announcement with Google shows Morrison is more of a passenger than a partner when it comes to tech. Let’s not forget that not a single cent of the $1billion over five years came from any government money. He’s all about the photo opp and disappears for the follow up,” Mr Husic said.

“In one breath Morrison’s beating up on big tech and in the next, he cosies up to them when he’s chasing a headline. It just doesn’t add up,” he said.

The Australian Information Industry Association welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement of $100 million toward a national quantum strategy, but queried the size of the investment, as well as the timeframe for its roll-out.

By contrast, AIIA chief executive Ron Gauci said Canada had invested C$360 million over seven years to launch a National Quantum Strategy, while the UK’s National Quantum Technologies Programme has been running since 2014, with an investment of over £200 million to fund a national network of four Quantum technology hubs.

“But the government needs to execute at speed and scale or we will continue to lose highly skilled people offshore and get left further behind on these critical technologies,” Mr Gauci said.

“Funding announced in May’s federal budget for the national AI strategy is still yet to be accessed by industry. We need the government to move at speed to harness the opportunities such as quantum and AI offer,” he said.

“The investment by the private sector, including Google’s announcement [on Tuesday] of a $1 billion investment over five years in Quantum and AI in Australia, highlights that the opportunity has been endorsed by industry.”

Brisbane-based artificial intelligence outfit Max Kelsen’s chief executive Nick Therkelsen-Terry says he is keen to see more detail of how the plan will play out but acknowledged the focus on commercialisation in the quantum computing industry was “a key strategic statement”.

“Working in the field, we recognise that while quantum computing has significant promise and potential, we need to ensure the investment is focussed on both commercialisation and on science, as there is still a long way to go before Quantum Computing is ready for the mainstream,” Mr Therkelsen-Terry said.

“This investment promises to ensure Australia continues to play a pivotal role in reaching that stage and reaps the benefits which will come once we do,” he said.

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