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Australia’s Critical Test for Future Growth: Moving the National AI Strategy from Rhetoric to Reality

20 Jan 2023
By Dr Aiden Warren, Dr Charles T. Hunt and Mark B. Manantan
 Heron RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft) on display at Centenary of Military Aviation 2014. Source: Hpeterswald/

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is considered the “new electricity” of the next technology revolution, and the Albanese government has launched a host of new initiatives to meet the challenge. 2023 will be a critical test year for the government’s plans.

The Albanese government has committed to supporting the development of Australia’s AI capability, building on the Morrison government’s efforts to advance AI development and cross-sector collaboration. The former government’s initiatives included $29.9 million over four years to support research, development, and commercialisation of AI technologies; an AI Ethics Advisory Panel;  AI Innovation Network to help bring together industry, universities, and government for AI solutions; and the development of Australia’s first AI Ethical Principles. To be sure, the Morrison government cannot be accused of neglecting AI development, but the meagre funding for such initiatives has been a source of national concern. One report by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), part of its AI for Development (AI4D) initiative, called the Australian AI budget “very small,” particularly compared to other countries, while noting that the Canadian government was investing ten times as much. Others have called the Morrison initiatives “over-hyped” and “too little and too late,” criticising the former government for not doing enough to create the conditions for future economic success.

The importance of AI to national prosperity and defence

Indicatively, the bar for the Albanese government is low. But undervaluing the importance of AI for national growth by only marginally lifting the budget for AI research and development (R&D) would be a mistake. Other national leaders have been clear about the potential for AI to the future of economic development. Former British prime minister Theresa May defined AI as being a “game-changer” for countries looking to remain competitive and securing their future. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has likewise called AI one of the most important tools available to countries to drive prosperity in the global economy. He noted recently that failure to adapt sufficiently would be akin to remaining a backward country, stuck in the modalities of the previous industrial revolution.

The test for the Albanese government going forward will be to decide how AI features in the next federal budget and importantly the Defence Strategic Review, due in March this year. In April 2022, Labor announced it would seek to establish the Advanced Strategic Research Agency (ASRA) with an initial start up fund of $1.2 billion over ten years. The Agency would build on the Defence Innovation Hub with four core research areas: cyber security; artificial intelligence; robotics and automation; and, quantum computing. Notably, the October 2022 budget did not mention ASRA or its $1.2 billion allocation, prompting concerns that there will be more continuity with the former government’s investment austerity.

Why Australia needs to invest more in AI

ASRA will be modelled on the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has morphed into an AI super research hub with significant application for government and defence related programs. It is responsible for the creation of the Internet, global positioning systems (GPS), autonomous vehicles, stealth technology, robotics, and natural language processing, among many other innovations. DARPA also provides guidance on ethical considerations and safety issues related to AI technology.

Britain’s Advanced Research Invention Agency (ARIA) offers a similar model, focusing on identifying, developing, and investing in new and emerging technologies in a wide range of areas; from artificial intelligence and robotics, to biotechnology and medical technologies.

Australia’s ASRA will be needed to push the boundaries of what is possible, not only in AI development but also in terms of government-corporate-academic collaborative efforts. The agency can be a source for sponsoring conferences, workshops, and fielding challenges to the community in competitive exercises. But more importantly, ASRA can be used for pushing AI thinking outside the box. The former government ended up choking this space by driving AI into the commercial sector and prioritising the employment of engineers over research scientists. With little funding at research institutions, AI researchers have been lured away into high paying technology startups and commercial entities, creating a broader national brain drain.

Proper funding for ASRA can bolster the R&D environment and draw in popular support and initiative by holding competitive funding rounds and competitions. These have been extremely popular and productive in the United States, and have included the DARPA Grand Challenge for American autonomous vehicles, Robotics Challenge, and the Launch Challenge for space launch vehicles, among many others. Importantly, the competitions encourage novel approaches to AI challenges that might otherwise seem too risky to pursue. And they draw from a wide section of society allowing potential problem solvers to distinguish themselves from the usual experts.

In other areas, more investment in AI technology can be used to improve public services, such as healthcare, education, transportation, and public safety. It can be used to make these services more efficient, more affordable, and more accessible to the public. AI can also be used to automate certain processes and reduce wait times, and lead to better decision-making in government by providing data-driven insights and recommendations. Finally, government investment in AI can lead to the development of new public infrastructure, such as smart cities, which can improve the quality of life for citizens.

Australia is well positioned to embrace AI going forward. According to Oxford Insight’s 2022 Government AI Readiness Report, the nation ranks 8th globally in terms of comprehensive AI capability. While this ranking is based on several important variables (government, technology sector, data and infrastructure), what is notable is that these rankings are shifting fast. China has pledged to develop a US$150 billion AI sector by 2030. In the United States, current estimates put total corporate spending in 2022 at $44 billion, though this number is likely to increase. For instance, it is estimated the combined enterprise value of AI unicorns in the US has reached $4.6 trillion. In India, the government is looking to train three million workers in AI, and establish a semiconductor mission for driving sustainable digital development. With AI budgets growing rapidly around the world, and with only minimal funding dedicated in Australia so far, this ranking will fall as global AI development soars.

What is clear is that with new technological development, the largest benefits always go to the early adopters. It is they who are able to adapt quickly, address infrastructural shortfalls, build capacities, and lead in patent design and creation. This is a roadmap for Australian competitiveness. Failure to act will inevitably compound the losses over time.

The Albanese government has had a strong start, investing in research and development in AI and skills training, and it has committed to ensuring that the benefits of AI are distributed equitably throughout society, including using AI to improve public services and create new jobs.

To drive this national AI plan home, the country will need a budget commensurate with the aims of the plan. This can begin with delivering the funds earmarked for ASRA.

Dr Aiden Warren is Professor in Politics and IR at the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He is also the Deputy Director (Global Security & International Relations) at the Sir Lawrence Wackett Defence and Aerospace Centre and Fulbright Scholar in Australia-United States Alliance Studies.

Dr Charles T. Hunt is Associate Professor of Global Security and Deputy Director (Strategic Policy and Defence Diplomacy) at the Sir Lawrence Wackett Defence & Aerospace Centre at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He is also Senior Fellow (non-resident) at the United Nations University Centre for Policy Research in New York, USA.

Mark B. Manantan is the Director of Cybersecurity and Critical Technologies at the Pacific Forum in Honolulu, Hawaii. At the Forum he currently leads the US Technology and Security partnerships with Japan, Australia, Taiwan and South Korea as well as the Digital ASEAN Initiative that focuses on cyber-capacity building, artificial intelligence, foreign interference, and space diplomacy. He is also the host of Pacific Forum’s official podcast, the Indo-Pacific Current.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.