Oz robotics needs ‘urgent’ investment

James Riley
Editorial Director

Australia must “urgently” invest in robotics if it wants to remain globally competitive and secure a potential $2.2 trillion in benefits thanks to automation over the next 15 years, according to the first national robotics roadmap.

The government-backed Australian Centre for Robotics Vision’s Robotics Roadmap called on the government and private sector to invest heavily in robotics to keep pace with the rest of the world and capitalise on the opportunities on offer, with a focus on ethics and regulations.

“Australia must urgently invest in robotics capability if it is to remain competitive on the world stage. Most of our economic peer countries…are making significant national investments in robotics. Australia has a similar opportunity as these competitors but must act swiftly to define ambitious goals and secure and build robotics capability,” the report said.

Alan Finkel: Robotics and AI are affecting every industry sector and the rewards could be big for a robot-ready Australia 

Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel launched the report in Canberra on Monday morning, and was joined by politicians from both sides of the aisle.

“When I was a child, robots were the realm of science fiction alone. Even through the decades that followed, simple automation and machines failed to fill the grand promises made by my favourite books,” Dr Finkel said at the launch.

“But in the last few years, that’s all changed – robots and artificial intelligence are appearing in every industry sector, with huge practical impact on the way we live, work and plan for the future. This roadmap shows just how quickly this field is moving, and the rewards available to a robot-ready Australia.”

The roadmap is a “guide to how Australia can harness the benefits of a new robot economy”, outlining the current robotics industry in Australia, its potential, and recommendations to encourage its growth and development, Australian Centre for Robotics Vision COO Dr Sue Keay said.

“By describing what is possible and what is desirable, the roadmap aims to create the grounds for the necessary cooperation to allow robots to help unlock human potential, modernise the economy and build national health, wellbeing and sustainability,” Dr Keay said.

“Like any roadmap, it doesn’t prescribe a destination, but it shows the starting points across industries and describes how to reach them. The intersection of all technology with artificial intelligence, machine learning and data collected through the exponential growth of sensors will find new problems and identify new opportunities. How we respond to this, both as a nation and as a planet, will determine the outcomes. This roadmap includes detailed recommendations to inform these responses.”

The roadmap was designed around five key principles: jobs matter, time matters, safety is imperative, remote communities need to be served and certainty counts. The 200-page report included a series of recommendations centred on industry, education, government, research and development and culture.

The report looks to counter much of the current thinking towards robots and automation, focusing on an optimistic future.

“A future where: robots do the dull, dirty and dangerous tasks not suited to human beings; robots solve many of the world’s most pressing challenges such as war, famine, natural disasters and environmental damage; robots help humans unlock potential and explore the furthest reaches of our universe,” the report said.

“This is a future where a prosperous Australia embraces a robot economy and builds national health, well-being and sustainability despite the challenges of our vast and remote geography.”

According to the report, automation could deliver a $2.2 trillion benefit to the Australian economy over the next 15 years, if businesses can accelerate their uptake of new technologies and if the workers that are displaced by these technologies are redeployed in new jobs.

It found that Australia is in many ways leading the world on robotics, with strengths in niche aspects, a good regulatory regime and unique geography. This provides a strong opportunity to act as a “test-bed” for new robotic technologies.

“Australia is a great test-bed for robotics and automation with our vast land mass and low population density, where robots are ideally placed to take on many dirty, dull and dangerous tasks. Our unique geography has led to the development of world-leading field robotics applications,” the report said.

“This provides us with an opportunity to exploit these strengths by developing Australia as a test-bed for new technologies taking advantage of our first-mover advantage in many areas to develop a true robot economy to benefit Australia.”

But if Australia doesn’t quickly address this opportunity with funding and resources, it may be left behind by the rest of the world, the report found.

“The risk of not doing so may see the industry fall prey to weaknesses and threats, where Australia loses niche capabilities, talent and technologies to other nations. A failure to address the current challenges that are seen to be holding Australia back, including collaboration, technology commercialisation, and structural changes to support a robot economy, may indicate that Australia lacks the ambition to succeed in the new high-tech industries of the future.”

More needs to be done to encourage the venture capital sector to support robotics in the creation of more high-tech firms, along with more support from large multinationals, the report recommended.

On the education side of things, the roadmap said there needs to be more focus on education and an improved gender balance to build the national capacity in the field, and micro-credentials and vocational education needs to be introduced.

Most of the report’s recommendation focused on the government’s support of robotics. It said that government needs to lead the way in developing ethical, legal and regulatory frameworks to “build trust and create certainty for industry” and support new network technologies and adequate bandwidth.

To support Australia’s reputation as a test-bed for robotics, the government should establish infrastructure to facilitate this develop the appropriate standards to ensure safety.

As with many other studies of Australia’s broader innovation and technology ecosystems, the roadmap found a significant weakness in commercialising robotic research into market-ready products.

The roadmap also said that robotics ethics “deserve immediate attention”, with a set of national guidelines to consider these implications “urgently needed”.

“These ethical considerations must be translated into guidelines, regulation and legislation, an area where government will play a crucial role, as acknowledged in an Australian government consultation paper,” it said.

Shadow innovation minister Kim Carr spoke at the launch, and said the roadmap is a “timely contribution to public policy debate in this country”.

“Media reporting of robotics, automation and the Internet of Things have made these terms bogey words to many people. We must resist that. We need to remember that the application of robotics in the modern workplace depends on the choices that people make,” Senator Carr said.

“The choice we face is not whether to accept or reject robotics systems, but how to introduce and adapt new technologies in ways that enhance human potential. Or to put it another way: machines don’t make sweatshops, only people do.”

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