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Opinion article

Australia needs a more co-ordinated approach to digital technology

In 2019 Prime Minister Scott Morrison established a Digital Technology Taskforce designed to propel Australia towards becoming a leading digital nation by 2030. In a speech just this month, he reiterated that aim. Yet Australia’s digital capabilities still lag our international competitors with recent Treasury research showing that the gap between the global technology frontier and Australian companies continues to grow.

 

The upcoming Federal budget is expected to make further investments towards our digital and tech aspirations. However, unless there is a more coordinated and ambitious approach, our aim of becoming a “leading” nation in this area will continue to loom out of reach.

Take for example quantum computing. It’s an area the Prime Minister has identified as one of several key technologies for Australia to have sovereign capability. In 2021, Australia’s Chief Scientist was commissioned to develop a national quantum computing strategy with the intention to build a commercialism hub, and last year the government committed $111 million to the project.  In comparison, since 2014, the UK Government has invested over £1 billion with co-contributions from industry. Over the same period, Canada has invested over $1 billion in quantum computing including a 2021 injection of $360 million for their own National Quantum Strategy. How is it that we will compete in a space where others are investing at a pace and scale so much greater than we are? 

Other areas in which we lag our peers include cloud computing, automation and machine learning. All these areas are crying out for stronger government stewardship in developing these technologies.

We know that among business leaders’ investment intentions are strong. A recent survey of CEDA member organisations revealed that 95 per cent of Chief Financial Officers expect investment in digital technology to be higher in the next three years than it was in the lead-up to the pandemic. 

However, the private sector is also facing a significant digital skills gap. Australia may be expecting 250,000 new jobs to be created by digitalisation by 2025 – yet skill shortages are weighing on investment decisions and limiting the ability of businesses to embed and leverage digital improvements. This has a flow on effect for future innovation. Closing this gap will be important to  Australia lifting its productivity and economic performance. 

One of the issues highlighted by the Tech Council of Australia is that two thirds of those studying IT at Australian universities are international students with more than half of them leaving Australia as soon as they are trained. 

It is critical that Australia’s investment in the digital economy includes investment in its people. This includes investing in training and education programs and ensuring there are incentives for highly skilled migrants and students to stay and work here.

Another area in which Australia is low on the development curve, is artificial intelligence technologies. Though the Federal government last year set out an AI Action Plan, established a National AI Centre and allocated grant funding to pilot AI projects of national significance, AI is still  in the early stages of implementation in Australian industries – only 34 per cent of firms use AI across their operations, and 31 per cent use it within a limited part of their business. Though large organisations in manufacturing, finance and banking lead the pack,  28 per cent of organisations in Australia have not adopted AI at all. This has ramifications in terms of Australian organisations to be productive and innovative compared to their global peers.

At CEDA’s recent Artificial Intelligence Roundtables our members highlighted the lack of maturity and understanding of responsible AI practices across Australian businesses. Research also has highlighted how many Australian businesses are being left behind when it comes to the adoption of this technology. For example, a Deliotte survey found that 55 per cent of those surveyed in China use AI to gain a competitive advantage, whereas 50 per cent of Australian businesses see it as a way to catch up to competitors. 

When it comes to developing our digital capabilities as a country, it is not just about investing and building capability – it’s also about building understanding and trust.

CEDA continues to advocate for the appointment of a Chief Technologist and a national technology assessment process to provide leadership across emerging technologies and build community trust and understanding of digital capabilities.

The need for a Chief Technologist will become increasingly important as more technologies are developed and adopted across Australian businesses. When we asked CEDA participants in our roundtables about AI priorities, 88 per cent said that trust and consumer confidence in AI was the leading or among the most important priorities for the future. Enabling digital and tech opportunities and building community trust that these investments will be beneficial to them and the nation must go hand in glove.  Now is the time for us as a nation to move with purpose and greater ambition in this direction.


This article originally appeared in the Weekend Australian on the 26th March, 2022.

 

About the authors
MC

Melinda Cilento

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Melinda Cilento is Chief Executive of CEDA, a company director, economist and experienced senior executive. She is a non-executive director of Australian Unity and Co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia. Melinda is also a member of the Parliamentary Budget Office panel of expert advisors.

Melinda was previously a Non-Executive Director with Woodside Petroleum, Commissioner with the Productivity Commission and Deputy CEO and Chief Economist with the Business Council of Australia. Melinda has also previously held senior roles with the Federal Department of Treasury, Invesco and the International Monetary Fund.

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