Labor confronts AI underspending

James Riley
Editorial Director

Labor’s National Conference has formally adopted into its platform a significantly boosted policy profile for artificial intelligence, committing a future Shorten government to the development of new AI capability in Australia.

In addition to outlining formal support for Labor’s already announced National Centre of AI Excellence, the platform foreshadows a bigger role for government in regulating algorithms and automated decision making systems, principally around issues of fairness and equality, and maximising social benefit in addition to economic benefit.

The platform promotes the need for government support of startups focused on using algorithms and artificial intelligence for maximising employment and positive social impact.

It says entrepreneurs and innovators from around the world should be encouraged and invited to come to Australia to see their ideas developed, deployed and commercialised.

Labor’s sharpened focus on artificial intelligence technology had been foreshadowed in a speech late last week by digital economy spokesman Ed Husic at an AI for Social Good Summit in Bangkok.

Mr Husic said an under investment in support for artificial intelligence development in Australia was having a flow-on impact on business investment in AI and the nation’s ability to diffuse AI capability across the economy.

In what has become a kind of AI bidding war, governments around the world have targeted AI as a public investment priority, whereas Australia has been tentative. Even relative to neighbors in our region, public sector spending on AI in Australia is not keeping pace.

While Germany announced recently a €3 billion investment in AI research and development, following France’s commitment of €1.5 billion and the UK’s £1 billion commitment, the Australian Government had announced in its most recent budget just $30 million over four years for the support of AI research.

“While AU$30 million is a start, there’s little doubt we need governments to get serious about the scale of investment required to ensure Australia can reap the most it can from AI application,” Mr Husic said.

“Because I’m concerned that Australia is being outpaced in a global AI race. For example our Singaporean neighbors are devoting around five times the amount we announced this year for AI investment,” he said.

Mr Husic also chipped government for the slow pace of reform of its open data policies, and updating the legislative framework for better data sharing arrangement.

While the government had been expected to make its Data Sharing and Release legislation available this year, the process has now been put off until 2019 and is unlikely to see daylight ahead of the federal election.

The lack of urgency around AI had a negative spill-over effect on business.

“I would argue that the lukewarm interest in AI application from government is likely to influence thinking on this within our business community,” Mr Husic said.

“This might be why when you compare the level of tech and digital investment support devoted by business across a range of countries, Australia is also lagging.

“At the point our businesses realise they must catch up, the big concern is that a rush to onboard new tech, will be hugely disruptive to the jobs of average Australians.”

The sharpening of Labor’s focus on artificial intelligence – as a user, regulator and industry development partner – will be welcomed by the technology and research sectors.

But while it’s all very well to say that the federal government has underestimated AI – and that it has under invested in the technology – until Labor starts attaching dollar signs to its policy plans, it is impossible to judge the scale of its interest.

There are many levers that government can pull to drive industry development or to deliver social benefit, not all of them are directly related to financial support.

But if Labor is going to be criticising government for not investing enough, it does not mean much until it puts its own dollars on the table.

There are a couple of relevant artificial intelligence policy references in the final draft of the ALP’s National Platform.

The first is paragraph 17 of the Chapter Two ‘A Strong Economy for All Australians’:

The rise of automation and artificial intelligence will threaten old jobs, but new ones will emerge. This is why Australia needs an education system producing skilled workers who can perform high technology, high-skilled jobs of the future.

Australia’s innovation and education framework should foster and encourage the very best of Australian ingenuity, so Australia sets the pace of technological change. Australians with good ideas should not be forced to leave Australia to see their ideas developed.

Entrepreneurs and innovators from around the world should be encouraged and invited to come to Australia to see their ideas developed, deployed and commercialised.

This was followed with the addition of a resolution put forward by NSW senator Deborah O’Neill and seconded by shadow industry minister Senator Kim Carr from Victoria, and which was adopted into Chapter Two of the National Platform.

The rapid development of artificial intelligence (AI) technology offers immense potential for social benefit by stimulating the development of new industries and jobs, enhancing productivity across existing industries and advancing Australia’s national interest.

Without proper oversight and governance, the emergence of such technologies may rapidly exacerbate global inequalities and disrupt global strategic order.

Labor recognises that the development of AI and related technology should be subject to principles of ethical governance including but not limited to, maximising public good, ensuring the technology is safe, trustworthy, and under the ultimate control of human decision-makers; ensuring gender diversity is accounted from in the development of AI to minimise inherited biases; maximising employment outcomes for Australians, public governance frameworks for AI; ensuring that the deployment of AI reflects Australian values; valuing openness and accountability; and developing appropriate ethical and legal regulation.

A Labor government in office shall look to implement these principles in a practical way, including via:

a) the establishment of a National Centre of AI Excellence

b) a review of the use of algorithms and artificial intelligence in government

c) reporting mechanisms to help track how privately devised and managed algorithms impact on the income and prices generated on digital platforms, including ride sharing and food delivery, to help prevent exploitation and worsening inequality; and

d) government support for startups focused on using algorithms and artificial intelligence for maximising employment and positive social impact

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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