Artificial intelligence is being used in nearly every research field around the world, with adoption at its fastest pace since the technology emerged more than half a century ago. Its help as a productivity tool remains difficult to prove but still holds promise as the “technology of our time”.
That’s according to a report by the CSIRO which has analysed the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on scientific discovery over the last 62 years.
It found AI research, investment and activity is at unprecedented scale, eclipsing the previous historical peaks which both then led to “AI winters”.
The CSIRO researchers don’t expect a third, however, and compares the potential lasting impacts of AI to that of electricity in in early 20th century.
“There are no signs of a slowdown,” the report said.
“Recent developments in AI are likely to have a lasting impact on how humans discover knowledge and solve problems in all fields of science and research.”
But as science looks for productivity gains amid an ongoing productivity slump, where more research effort is being invested to achieve the same or fewer outcomes, AI hasn’t yet proven to be it.
“The science productivity slump is causing a broader productivity slump across most industries and the entire economy,” the report said.
“As a general-purpose technology, AI can improve productivity in all domains of science and research and, therefore, all industries. However, at this stage we still refer to this as ‘a promise’ for productivity uplift.”
The potential is so great, the CSIRO compares it to electricity’s impact on the economic expansion of the Roaring 20s.
“It is possible that AI is the general-purpose technology of our time which leads to improved productivity in science which, in turn, improves productivity and growth in the whole economy,” the report said.
The Australian government has funded a National AI Centre and a recent graduates program to develop Australia’s local AI research talent. More initiatives are expected, with the new Labor government preserving around $113 million in AI funding but is not ruling out changes to its delivery after delays to earlier AI grant programs.
The CSIRO report was developed to assist researchers seeking to improve their own AI capabilities as the technology permeates into nearly every field.
The report found evidence of AI adoption in 98 per cent of fields, with the steepest publishing increases recorded over the past half decade. Mathematics, decision sciences, engineering, neuroscience and health professions are noted as among the most prolific adopters.
The report identifies six future development pathways for AI: software and hardware upgrades; the quest for better data (not just big data); Education, training and capability uplift; “human-centric” AI; workforce diversity; and social expectations and regulations for ethical AI.
With AI growth expected to continue over the coming decade there is an imperative for science organisations to upgrade their capabilities through the pathways, according to the report.
“The development of trusted, responsible and ethical AI solutions will be increasingly important globally, and because we have moved quickly to build deep expertise in the field, Australia has a unique opportunity to lead in this area,” CSIRO chief scientist, Professor Bronwyn Fox said.
“An uplift in AI capabilities will also be needed across all scientific disciplines over the coming decades and it will be vital that we lift workforce diversity at the same time.”
The CSIRO has also identified AI as a key driver of the ‘Diving into digital’ megatrend – one of seven major trends the science agency has forecast to shape the challenges and significant opportunities Australia will face in the coming years.
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