Local tech leaders have railed against Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s emphasis on tech adoption rather than creation, branding it “uninspiring”, lacking in ambition and “the opposite of what we should be aiming to achieve”.
In a speech last week, Mr Morrison centred his government’s digital policies around the quick adoption of overseas tech products by everyday SMEs rather than the creation of new technologies by startups and the likes.
He repeatedly said the government wasn’t trying to create its own Silicon Valley.
“All of the digital transformation, it’s not an Everest we have to climb. We’re not just doing it because it’s there. We’re not trying to create the next Silicon Valley here in Australia. That’s not it,” Mr Morrison said.
“We’ve just got to be the best at adopting. Taking it on board. Making it work for us. And we’re really good at that. You don’t have to be a tech-head. You don’t have to be someone who was totally absorbed in the technology of this to understand its implications. It’s a massive priority for my government.”
This is the opposite of what the government’s messaging around technology should be, Blackbird Ventures co-founder Niki Scevak said.
“It’s unfortunately uninspiring. It’s exactly the opposite of what we should be aiming to achieve in Australia,” Mr Scevak told InnovationAus.
“If we are to succeed and create a wonderful country we need to create wonderful businesses where people all around the world use our technology and products.”
“We need to win on the global stage rather than being a consumer of technology. It’s unfortunately uninspiring and the opposite should be true. We need to believe in ourselves to create original ideas and original businesses that the world can enjoy.”
Q-CTRL founder and chief executive Professor Michael Biercuk said the government’s messaging around technologies for general SMEs is important, but the matching messaging around developing technology locally is missing.
“I understand the Prime Minister’s need to explain to a broad base the industrial sector, whether it’s cafes or banks, that adopting technology does not need to be an exercise only for the Silicon Valley-types. This is something that can benefit everyone,” Professor Biercuk told InnovationAus.
“But it’s important that the complimentary message is also expressed, that developing homegrown technology is also a priority. It’s important that all the right people in government and the industrial sector understand how much activity there is and the potential benefit of leveraging that,” he said.
“It’s not just buying the Australia-built alternative to something built overseas. It’s advocating building totally new things like we do at Q-CTRL.
“I look forward to hearing that messaging from the Prime Minister and government. It’s about getting the message just right for everyone involved, from cafe owners adopting existing technology through to teams like mine at Q-CTRL building new things.”
UNSW scientia professor of artificial intelligence Toby Walsh said the speech demonstrated a “terrible lack of ambition”.
“It’s somewhat disappointing. Of course, we do need to adopt technology, and coming out of COVID it’s almost certain that there’s going to be a lot of pressure and a lot more adoption of tech,” Professor Walsh told InnovationAus.
“We can expect businesses to be under pressure and it will increase the adoption of technologies, and Australia needs to be adopting. But to leave it at that is selling ourselves short,” he said.
“It’s selling our scientists, tech industry and startups short, because there are far more gains to be made by adopting and pioneering.”
It’s hard not to compare the statements with how other nations have placed the tech sector at the centre of their economic recoveries, Professor Walsh said, such as Saudia Arabia’s announcement that it plans to raise $US20 billion in investment in data and artificial intelligence initiatives.
The statements also clash with the government’s emphasis on sovereignty and supply chain security in the wake of the pandemic, Professor Walsh said.
“The government is somewhat confused in its message. The government is sending such mixed messages. On the one hand it wants us to be pioneering in manufacturing, but why would the digital space be any different than the physical manufacturing space?
“We have a very competitive university sector, and a very competitive research sector. These are the jobs of the future,” he said.
Ethical AI Advisory founder and chief executive Dr Catriona Wallace said the Australian tech community “fully disagrees” with Mr Morrison’s statements.
“We most absolutely will not just be adopters of technology, but will be investors, entrepreneurs, developers and creators of new and advanced world-leading technologies,” Dr Wallace said on LinkedIn.
“We cannot rebuild the economy on gas, manufacturing and technology adoption. All three are questionable. Technology creation for the use of Australian organisations and also its exportation must be a core pillar of recovery.”