Does Australia lack innovation clusters like Silicon Valley?

By Sophie Kesteven (for ABC News)

Despite Australia “punching above its weight” in artificial intelligence (AI) research, the country is failing to embrace the technology in the business sector, according to an expert.

Within the next five to 10 years, Professor Toby Walsh envisions Australian businesses to be using autonomous cars, buses, trucks, and robot advisors.

“In research terms, I think we punch above our weight,” the University of New South Wales and Data61 AI professor said.

However, he is concerned Australia is lagging behind other countries such as the United States and China when it comes to embracing this form of computer intelligence within our businesses.

According to a 2017 Infosys report on artificial intelligence, which examined organisations from seven different countries, Australia was found to be the country most likely to have no plans to implement AI within businesses.

Compared to China, where 100 per cent of respondents’ organisations reported plans to deploy AI, Australia scored a mere 20 per cent.

Competing on the AI world stage

On a busy street lined with cafes and bars in Canberra, a business, that initially began out of the idea of teaching robots to see, is creating waves around the globe in intelligent face and eye-tracking technology.

“At the moment, we’re taking small steps into AI,” Seeing Machines chief technology officer and founder Timothy Edwards said.

“It’s a very big spectrum and I guess what we’re doing is developing an expert system designed to detect drowsiness and distraction in car and truck drivers, and for that system to work better and better they are using AI techniques to try to refine its performance.”

Using face-tracking technology, the business is able to improve both safety and consumer experiences within the cars, trains, aeroplanes, and trucks in the mining sector.

“It’s definitely saving lives everyday — lots of people are aware of it now and we’re getting a lot of demand, and certainly in cars as well — this is a big moment,” he said.

Does Australia lack innovation clusters like Silicon Valley?

However, taking the leap from studying systems engineering and computer science at the Australian National University, to then starting up a business in this field was not so easy, according to Mr Edwards.

“My own experience in trying to spin out a company from university has been met with the challenge of capital raising and [finding the] appropriate infrastructure in cities,” he said.

“We struggled to access data centres, to have enough broadband network, and to really have access to the kinds of technology you can access if you’re over in Silicon Valley.

“It’s just harder and slower for us to sometimes build a piece of hardware or go and solve a problem, but if you’re in Silicon Valley there’s a company down the road that’s already doing it, so it’s a real ecosystem thing.”

Mr Edwards said while their business had received a lot of government support, they still struggled to access the latest hardware in Australia.

“We find it hard to access the latest technology here in Australia, as well in terms of the latest bits of silicon,” he said.

“You have to go to Shenzhen [in China] for all that stuff — that’s the heart of hardware technology.”

Connecting research and industry

Professor Walsh said if Australia was going to compete with other countries advancing in AI, there was a greater need for investment.

“Compared to some other countries, I don’t think we have enough in the way of tax incentives to encourage research and development to allow business to make the suitable investments they need to get ahead,” he said.

“But the way to stay ahead of the machines and to stay competitive is to have a highly educated workforce that’s highly adaptable and can keep ahead of automation.”

Australian Chamber of Commerce Economics and Industry director Adam Carr added incorporating AI within business did not need to have “negative overtones”.

“It can be ‘what does it mean for me and my children’ in an exciting sense,” he said.

“I think AI is something we really need to be on top of and I think the Government has a role in that.

“They need to be engaging with business, talking to academia and acting as a facilitator between the various sectors to make sure we’re having the right conversations.”

This article was originally published on ABC News.