Until Australia can articulate a vision for “where we want to be” in terms of building a domestic robotics industry, “we’re never going to get there,” according to the chair of the Robotics Australia Group, Dr Sue Keay.
Robotics is an area where Australia has demonstrated some genuine, world-leading expertise. It is an area – particularly through the global players in the mining sector – where Australia has built best-in-class tech.
But Dr Keay says that while there are the bones of a strong robotics sector in this country, the general perception is that the robotics industry is immature, that it is fragmented, and that it has been invisible.
This interview with Sue Keay was one of my favourites ever for the Commercial Disco podcast. It is a great privilege of the job, that I am able to speak with smart, interesting people about the subject matters they are most passionate about.
Dr Keay is something of an accidental roboticist (her PhD is in Isotope Geochemistry). She became chief operating officer at the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision in 2014 and never looked back. Since then, she has been the research director for Cyber-Physical Systems at the CSIRO’s Data61, the CEO of the Queensland AI Hub, and participated on numerous robotics advisory boards across governments and academia.
As the chair of the Robotics Australia Group, Dr Keayis pushing for a national recognition of the scale of the opportunity that the robotics sector presents – and is hopeful that the National Robotics Strategy currently under development by the federal Industry department will get this done.
“If we look at how other countries have progressed in this area, they have been pretty specific about what they want to achieve,” Dr Keay told the Commercial Disco podcast.
“China, South Korea, the US all have pretty clear maps of where they want to go and how they’re going to get there. And we’ve just been missing that in Australia,” she said. “And so unfortunately, while we are capable of developing fantastic talent and technologies, a lot of that goes straight overseas.”
Dr Keay said there are a lot of Australian robotics companies who head straight overseas to countries like the US for funding. This is a tremendous shame given the expertise in Australia, she said.
The Robotics Australia Group was formed directly to try to overcome some of these challenges, with the aim to see Australia become a global leader in the supply of robotics products and services as early as 2030.
Dr Keay says there are good opportunities where robotics overlaps with artificial intelligence, a fertile area of research activity in Australia.
“We think there is probably quite a market for developing hardware that uses AI that people know they can trust – from a country like Australia – where we’re building things that are consistent with [Australian] values,” Dr Keay said.
“But to do that, we need for a few things to happen, the number one issue facing robotics companies in Australia is access to capital. To see our robotics industry grow, we really need to substantially increase that and help to overcome those funding gaps.”
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