Australian Outlook

In this section

The Digital Revolution: New Challenges, New Thinking

03 Jan 2019
By Anthony Elliott and Ross Boyd
Source: Pixabay

The digital revolution presents a new set of challenges and opportunities for the European Union and Australia.

One of the defining features of the 21st century is the digital revolution – from AI, advanced robotics, Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things to self-driving cars, chatbots, drones, Uber, smart homes and personal assistants.

The rise of digital life is producing a profound transformation of the relations between the public, political and global on the one hand and the private, personal and local on the other. Central to these transformations lie the promises and challenges of AI.

Innovation underpinned by monetary investment and public policy initiatives lies at the core of this digital revolution. In terms of national investment in AI, for example, the EU estimates a total public investment of $US20 billion by 2030 – France has committed $US1.8 billion over five years, the UK $US1.3 billion over 10 years and China calculates it will spend $US209 billion by 2030. Estimates of productivity-driven economic growth have AI contributing approximately US$16 trillion to the global economy by 2030.

Over three billion people are today online – almost half of the world’s population. By 2020, it is estimated that the average person will have four devices connected online – with 33 billion inter-connected devices operating worldwide. In 2016, the Internet-based economy reached $US4.2 trillion in the G-20 economies. If this were a national economy, it would rank behind only the US, China, Japan and India. Across the G-20, this new economy already contributes to over 4 per cent of GDP.

In addition to the range and rapid spread of systems of digitalisation, the scaling up of robotics is hugely significant throughout much of the world. In 2015, the number of industrial robots sold worldwide was nearly 250,000, with the industrial robotics industry enjoying annual global growth of approximately 10 per cent. AI-enabled cyberphysical systems such as Industry 4.0 will radically intensify digital disruption in the labour market and employment. Many jobs will certainly disappear because of AI, other jobs will be enhanced by AI, and many – yet unknown – jobs will be generated.

The EU, with its flagship Digital Agenda for Europe initiative and Digital Single Market strategy, has established policy platforms designed to capture the benefits and offset the risks of digital transformations for all EU citizens. With the 2017 roadmap Australia 2030: Prosperity Through Innovation and forthcoming Digital Economy Strategy, the Australian Government is taking significant steps to follow suit. In both cases commitments to facilitating the development of AI figure prominently. Yet the magnitude of these transformations, and hence the challenges entailed, cannot be underestimated.

Robotics and AI are increasingly networked, mobile and global. We are witnessing a new kind of technological transformation unlike anything previously realised – especially when viewed as converging with developments in biotechnology and nanotechnology. What is new is not only the speed, breadth and depth of digital innovation and change, but also the connected nature of our interactions with others and everyday objects. While people are connecting to the Internet as never before, so too are machines – and in staggering numbers. High-tech electric cars, TVs, computers, fridges – more and more, the appliances and devices we use in daily life have the capacity to communicate autonomously with other machines. Smart home-based devices have in large part attracted the bulk of media attention, yet it is in industry and the public services sector – ranging across retail, services, smart buildings and smart grid applications – where the large bulk of growth in connected devices will occur. Contemporary life increasingly consists of a merging of social and digital networks of interaction – with devices and software systems (operational via the Internet) producing, receiving and analysing data.

AI is not so much about the future as the here-and-now. Today, AI is threaded into much of what we do, and increasingly shapes who we are – evidenced in the rise of chatbots, Google Maps, Uber, Amazon recommendations, email spam filters, robo-readers, and AI-powered personal assistants such as Siri, Alexa and Echo. Digital technology has been remarkably successful in satisfying the demands of our high-speed societies. The digital revolution, we are routinely told by technology experts and the media, will change how we live and work in the decades ahead. Transformed futures are everywhere, and there is now a large and ever-growing industry of specialists thinking and anticipating how digital technologies will transform how we act, see, feel, think and talk in the future.

We live increasingly in a world of technological innovation riven between extraordinary opportunity and wholesale risk. There is no easy way in advance of identifying how new technologies based on autonomous systems and adaptation to the environment will play out. There are certainly some stunning opportunities, with the potential to drastically reduce poverty, disease and war. But so too the risks are enormous, and this can be clearly discerned from the IT arms race, the development of autonomous weapons systems and other fundamental threats.

A range of strategies will be required to confront the opportunities and challenges of AI and big data, rather than a single approach, and much will depend on getting the right mix of global governance, local regulatory mechanisms, civil society participation, industry support and business compliance, and the development and deepening of digital understanding throughout populations will be of key importance. Governments the world over will face increasing dilemmas in balancing technological innovation and scientific advancement with popular support, especially in terms of employment policies.

The key question for the EU and Australia today is whether our societies can tolerate the uncertainties that attend AI, react creatively to these and become more open towards constantly evolving digital transformation. It may well transpire that our traditional frameworks for understanding social life are now approaching an end. If the social, cultural and political debates sparked by current digital transformations teach us anything, it is that the scope, intensity, speed and long-term consequences of technological innovation are so profound that we might have, as it were, simply run out of styles of thinking or frameworks for understanding the impact of such changes. If so we will need fresh thinking to confront this breathtaking challenge, to break out of stifling orthodoxy, and to explore new issues.

It is precisely this task of thinking afresh to meet the challenges of the digital revolution that researchers based at the Hawke EU Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence, in conjunction with their European and Asia-Pacific Jean Monnet Network partners, are currently addressing.

Professor Anthony Elliott is Dean of External Engagement at the University of South Australia, where he is Executive Director of the Hawke EU Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence.

Dr Ross Boyd is Senior Research Associate at the Hawke EU Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence, University of South Australia.

This article was originally published in The EU and Australia: Towards a New Era, the official publication of the EU-Australia Leadership Forum 2018, which took place from 18-22 November. It is republished with permission. 

The AIIA is part of the international consortium selected to deliver the EU-Australia Leadership Forum project, a three-year initiative funded by the EU. Click here for video highlights of the forum