Of all the regulatory issues involving technology being considered by the federal government right now, the challenges of artificial intelligence are the most vexing, Australian Information Industry Association chief executive officer Simon Bush says.
There is a lot that governments need to get right in relation to AI. Regulations must keep citizens safe and free from systemic bias or overly intrusive system behaviour on the one hand.
But regulation must also be flexible and targeted enough that they don’t stifle innovation or strangle the tremendous productivity potential that AI can deliver on the other.
Simon Bush is 15 months into his role at the helm of a resurgent AIIA, an association that has since 1978 represented the interests of ‘computing’ companies over many multiple generations of technology.
Mr Bush is a part of the Canberra furniture, having spent a career in tech advocacy roles, as well as inside ministerial offices. He spoke to InnovationAus.com about his first year in top job at the AIIA.
The list of priority issues for AIIA members won’t surprise anyone who follows the tech industry in this country.
Skills and access to talent remains a big and ongoing issue for tech companies, although Mr Bush says it is fair to say that federal government recognises this and has been active in employment strategy and workforce planning.
Tech regulation in all its forms from AI to cybersecurity to ESG compliance is an issue as perennial as the grass. The legislation that will govern the introduction of Digital ID is a hugely important issue that the AIIA is watching closely.
But of all things, right now, it is the regulation of AI where the association is keeping closest watch. The stakes are high, with huge opportunities if government gets things right and potentially dire consequences if government gets it wrong.
The potential productivity benefits of AI are massive all the way across the economy, he says. The trick is to make sure the regulatory approach puts guardrails in place without stifling that potential.
And while the federal government broadly and Industry and Science Minister Ed Husic specifically are looking deeply at the issue, the AIIA is watching very closely.
“This is about making sure that the massive productivity benefits for the economy are not lost through an overly regulatory approach,” Mr Bush said.
“We need to be really on the ball and make sure that the government responds in the most appropriate way,” he said.
“That is, that government is going to respond to community concerns and to legitimate issues that are emerging in relation to generative AI, and to make sure that it’s used in an appropriate way.
“But also, to respond in a way where we don’t dampen down the productivity benefits or discourage people from continuing to invest in this area.”
The concern is that while there are “pockets of people” within the political class who “get it” and are making efforts to understand the impact of artificial intelligence, the majority do not.
“You’ve got a minister like Ed Husic who is fully engaged. He’s out there learning, engaging, working hard to understand the issues,” Mr Bush said.
“But then you’ve got other parts of governments across Australia, who have got a total disinterest [in the technology] and who are not across the issues.”
And this is an issue, he says. “Most people get that generative AI is different from other technologies. There’s a lot of hype around it, and most of that hype is justified.”
“The scary part of it where the issues are in the short term, [for example] in something like image manipulation and deep fakes. That is where I think government should be broadly concerned and rightly have a bit of focus on,” Mr Bush said.
“But the industry is coming together to look at that issue by using watermarks. There are 1500 companies globally that have come together to try and solve this issue and to put some transparency and trust into images.”
“So, there are things happening and there are identifiable concerns. But we think that industries will [end up] working with governments and looking at the use cases, and deciding what needs to be done,” he said.
What the AIIA wants to avoid is government reacting to specific use-case issues with broad, overarching legislation.
“To me, you can’t have some sort of overarching ‘AI Act’ in terms of regulation, because AI is multiple pieces of technology [depending on how and where it is applied].”
The other piece of tech regulation that could drive enormous benefit is in ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance) compliance, an area where the AIIA recently published a whitepaper.
ESG compliance, especially in a whole range of areas related to energy transition, will be driven by information technology – so has been a big focus for the tech sector.
“That has been a real priority for us and will be over the next couple of years. That’s really in assisting government on its journey and understanding the benefits that technology has in driving our economy towards carbon zero.”
The AIIA was set up 45 years ago and along with the Australian Computer Society was one of the two primary advocacy groups. More recently, the tech industry has fragmented into components parts – think regtech, fintech or cyber.
And a new Technology Council of Australia was created a couple of years ago, adding heavyweight advocacy firepower to the sector.
Simon Bush has strengthen the team at the AIIA and invested in better back-end tech to better support members. He says the addition of new advocacy groups is, in the end, a good thing.
“We welcome the fact that there’s other associations in the tech sector who are highlighting the importance of technology in the economy. More voices will lead to hopefully greater engagements from governments and greater investment in the right places,” he said.
“We have a large membership base and very diverse membership base. So we think that our diversity of our membership base from all the multinationals through the major telco providers, the major consulting providers, systems integrators, cybersecurity companies, data centre, owners, and also lots and lots of SMEs and university sectors and government departments gives us a really good understanding of what is going out there in the digital economy.
“And our voice is representative of all those sectors. We have to come up with a policy position … so we have got very mature processes in the AIIA to come up with positions that have had the input from those diverse members.
“And so that really helps government to understand that we’ve done the hard work in creating and landing on a policy position that’s representative all that diversity.”
Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.