The search for a crystal ball

James Riley
Editorial Director

The next twelve months should be a rip roaring ride for the technology and innovation scene in Australia and the world, full of disruption, instability and enormous opportunity.

On a global level, 2018 will be the year of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and the ever increasing Internet of Things.

Already, machine learning and advanced AI have switched from being tricky, roll-your-own initiatives fit only for large enterprise or government, to services offered in the cloud by the likes of AWS among others.

Sandy Plunkett: Politicians don’t know how to ‘sell’ innovation policy

Recent research unveiled this week at the World Economic Forum from Infosys polled 1000 senior leaders in large organisations in seven countries including Australia.

The research found 89 per cent of the Australian leaders polled where already using AI – up from 65 per cent last year.

During 2018, the use of AI and machine learning will likely filter down from elite applications to mainstream private and public sector use, producing a range of effects on sales, production, R&D, social services and logistics.

But the surge in AI also produced disruption fear, with 69 per cent of those polled saying their workers are concerned AI will replace them.

Meanwhile, this year 5G network technology will be in serious test mode as equipment vendors and telcos tick-off the technical timeline that will lead to the first rollouts in 2019.

These trials should be watched closely, because they will increasingly pinpoint rollouts. Aussies should especially watch for news from Telstra’s 5G testing facility on the Gold Coast.

Australia’s federal pollies will go into election mode this year, especially in the second half where the Labor Party will likely trot out some actual policy rather than the headland speeches we have seen so far.

We are still waiting for essential detail from Labor on everything from cyber security policy to the NBN and innovation issues such as tax and development policy.

Hopefully, Labor will have the smarts to cook up good ideas and the guts to give us a long look at them before the next election.

Meanwhile, the Coalition which has developed and implemented worthwhile policy on everything from startup funding to cyber security, to business migration and public service infotech reform, will be talking up its book and hopefully tweaking the stuff that needs further reform.

The major technical election issue will the National Broadband Network and customer experience of the NBN is likely to be vexatious for the Coalition.

Essentially, if voters are stuck with Fibre to the Node or HFC technology, that experience is more likely to be negative. And that’s a problem for Malcolm Turnbull, whose fingerprints are smeared all over the NBN, both as the former Communications Minister in Tony Abbott’s short reign as PM, and now as the political head honcho today.

If customers score faster and more reliable Fibre to the Basement or Fibre to the Curb connections, they are more likely to be happy with the NBN and less likely for the network to influence their political views.

Innovation commentator Sandy Plunkett is not hopeful of much sense from the political class through 2018.

“It’s an election year in Australia, so I am really trying to brace for a year of crazy stupid.”

“Apart from the imminent final release of the ISA [Innovation and Science Australia] 2030 plan, Innovation, Ideas Booms and technology will not be featured sensibly, if at all, in policy and election campaigning this year,” says Ms Plunkett.

“It’s pretty clear that politicians don’t want to go there. Even if some (very few) pollies see value in the idea of Australia as an Innovation Nation, they don’t know how to ‘sell it’ to voters.”

Data61 chief executive Adrian Turner’s list of the major tech trends for 2018 spots trusted machine learning and AI; distributed privacy-preserving data management; robotics; computational law; cyber security and distributed ledger technologies.

“To complement and leverage our Research Programs, in 2018 we’re building Technology Programs to accelerate commercialising research, and to drive scale around a smaller number of areas that will make a major difference for the country,” says Mr Turner, who sees one of the biggest challenges facing Data61 this year as the digital literacy of leaders.

“Half of executives come from a financial background and only 6 per cent come from a technology background. As all industries become data-driven, new business models need to be created and these are underpinned by technology

“Global competition is coming to us in Australia, we have to be globally competitive in everything we do instead of adopting strategies to compete against global entrants to our market.

“This means leaders will need to be committed to creating new products and services that are globally competitive and not just good enough for Australia, and investing in R&D for product development. Competition is going to find us, we can’t hide from it. We shouldn’t be intimidated by that,” he says.

BlueChilli CEO Sebastien Eckersley-Maslin 2018 is gearing up for big growth year, especially on the global stage.

“After building Australia’s number one accelerator (StartCon 2017) and being recognised internationally by the OECD for inclusivity, we want to take our programs to the world. 2018 will see us launch SheStarts in the US,” says Mr Eckersley-Maslin.

Augmented reality, AI, autonomous vehicles and block chain as it applies to non-currency applications are the tech trend that fire up Mr Eckersley-Maslin for this year.

“2018 is a big year for block chain, autonomous vehicles, AR and AI,” he says.

“On the back of SheStarts alumni BronTech’s investment by the ASX listed Ookami, we want to work with our partners and entrepreneurs to build block chain related startups,” he says.

“We will also see AR take a much more prominent role with all major mobile platforms pushing AR frameworks forward.

“Another tech trend we’re building on in 2018 is with artificial intelligence and specifically machine learning. Neighbourlytics, Hey Jess and VetChat are all developing their models in this space and we want to invest further here.

“Finally we are experimenting with hardware and autonomous vehicle technologies, leveraging my past experience as top post graduate at UNSW in drone sensor design,” Mr Eckersley-Maslin said.

On the cyber front, February will see the compulsory data breach legislation kick in. This will have profound effects on everything from the evolution of cyber insurance here to a much better understanding of the national cyber threat profile.

You only have to look at a recent NSW Auditor General’s report that had one third of the state’s 39 largest agencies saying they had experienced no cyberattacks at all in 2016-17, to suspect cyber reporting is due for a major overhaul.

Steve Ingram, who is PwC’s Asia Pacific Cyber Lead, would like more private sector involvement in the Federal government led Joint Cyber Security Centre.

“Free up the Joint Cyber Security Centre structure, increasing the role of the private sector,” says Mr Ingram.

“We could become the ‘champagne’ of cyber internationally if consumers knew they could rely on Australian brands for cyber security,” he says.

The biggest challenge facing the local cyber scene is a skills and talent shortage, Mr Ingram says.

“It’s not just about tech skills it’s about finding the right people with the right aptitude. We are also very short of the right sort of school subjects to prepare kids for a cyber world, and we are short of children taking STEM courses.”

Ms Plunkett also has tech and innovation skills front and centre of her outlook for 2018.

“Australians need to understand that none of the internet-era ‘innovation’ and economics is evolving randomly. Nor is the technology neutral,” she said.

“Amid all the talk of jobs and growth, we risk being blindsided by the ongoing socio-economic impact of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution. We are relative outsiders because the 21st century digital era has been designed, marketed and massively scaled by people and companies outside Australia.

“As a nation, we are far less prepared for the ongoing socio-economic consequences – both seen and unseen – of this burst of other people’s innovation,” Ms Plunkett said.

“It should be very disturbing for a nation that values the notions of fairness and egalitarianism in our social contract because in the global digital age, no nation is an island and those values – along with an estimated 40 per cent of traditional jobs – are fragile and under threat in Australia, as elsewhere.

“So first, we need to better understand what we are dealing with, for the laws and mores of the global digital age are already set and so far, “fairness” has nothing to do with it.”

Technology literacy in business is high on Mr Turner’s radar for upping the national skillset in 2018.

“There needs to be better technology literacy in business – this involves understanding the economic shift created by digital and data-driven businesses,” he says.

“There is a general lack of awareness and understanding of the opportunities for re-shaping industry boundaries and for creating new industries.

“There are also core technology skills that Australians need to develop including in data science, cybersecurity, ML/AI, business architecture – not just technology architecture.

The other element is the societal and ethical implications of new technologies, and using technology to ease the cost/s of regulatory compliance.”

Mr Turner also urges better integration of researchers in industry and greater collaboration between academia, industry and government.

Like most in the innovation sector, one of the biggest challenge for BlueChilli in 2018 is access to great talent, and Mr Eckersley-Maslin is looking overseas.

“We have a few exciting announcements in 2018 bringing some phenomenal overseas talent to Australia to help us with our global mission of empowering entrepreneurs,” he says.

As far as the fate of the nation goes this year, Mr Eckersley-Maslin believes our leaders need a mission implant.

“I think Australia, as a country, currently lacks a ‘mission’. We have the skills, we have the capital but we lack a focused mission from leadership,” he said.

“I would love to see our leaders push to drive Australia as the number one global destination for solar and clean technology, for example, which will help drive growth in engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs in this space.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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