Despite calls from the tech sector for Mr Porter’s replacement while he deals with sexual assault allegations, Mr Gauci said the minister had proved to be supportive of the AIIA’s position, though it was yet “too early to tell” how effective he would be.
But Mr Porter’s performance as minister wasn’t the issue. It is ministers in charge of other departments who need convincing to take the tech sector seriously, Mr Gauci said.
“Where I think the minister needs assistance is with his colleagues. It’s something that the whole of government needs to show leadership on,” he said.
The AIIA is a peak industry body that represents large information and telecommunications technology companies such as Dell, Lenovo, IBM, Cisco and Telstra, as well as small and medium enterprises working in the sector. It claims to represent “a significant portion of the 750,000+ workforce of the Australian technology sector”.
In its white paper, Growing Globally Competitive Industries: Powered by Australia’s innovation technology, the AIIA makes almost 80 recommendations across the agriculture, health, digital government, manufacturing, engineering, quantum computing, cybersecurity and artificial intelligence industries.
Recommendations include that:
- The Federal Department of Agriculture establish a standalone “AgTech” branch, to help commercialise agricultural technology that’s invented here, before it is sold off and commercialised overseas, only to be consumed here by the agriculture industry;
- Federal and state governments agree to an integrated and seamless digital health capability for Australia, to help develop the health tech industry;
- That government and Australia’s burgeoning artificial intelligence industry come together to establish a national AI Commercialisation Hub that is focused on “AI research translation”.
A day late and a penny short
AI and quantum computing were two emerging areas that were good examples of where Australia was at risk of losing any competitive advantage it might now have, Mr Gauci said.
In April, the AIIA called on the federal government to commit $250 million over four years to developing Australia’s burgeoning artificial intelligence industry – a sum that would merely be keeping pace with the level of investment governments of other nations were making in their AI industries.
What the sector received instead from the 2021 federal budget was just $124.1 million over an unspecified timeframe, including $53.8 million to create a National Artificial Intelligence (AI) Centre based in CSIRO’s Data 61. The commitment formed part of the $1.2 billion package of new measures aimed at ensuring Australia is a leading digital economy by 2030.
But neither the CSIRO nor the AIIA have been able to access that money, months after it was committed, and time was running out, Mr Gauci said.
“We’re both waiting for direction from the government on how to access the money that’s been set aside,” he said.
Worse yet, the government was placing far too much emphasis on funding research, and not nearly enough on funding commercialisation of technologies such as AI and quantum computing, which would quickly move offshore if they can’t be commercialised here, he said.
“It’s a poor indictment that Australia doesn’t have a national quantum strategy, even though we’ve got thought leaders in this space whom we know are making their way offshore,” Mr Gauci said.
Professor Michael Biercuk, founder and chief executive of the Sydney-based quantum computing startup Q-Ctrl, recently told The Financial Review that there wasn’t a single boardroom meeting at his or any other Australian quantum computing company he was aware of, where the topic of moving offshore wasn’t seriously discussed.
“What we’re seeing now is a ‘Sliding Doors’ moment for this economy, where we can become either consumers of technology, or producers of technology. This is a potential growth opportunity, or a lost opportunity,” Mr Gauci said.
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