John Chambers’ Warning to Australia

Is our Government paying enough attention to Artificial Intelligence?

If you are working in Technology, chances are you know who John Chambers is. He is the person responsible for taking Cisco from a $70m USD in annual revenue small-time vendor to a $47Billion USD networking giant that it was when John left. What he achieved in his 20+ years as the CEO of Cisco, by far outshines Jack Welch’s achievement at GE, but I did not write this article to compare CEOs.

A week ago, John – apparently, I know him on a first-name basis! – was in town and he had a clear message for us Aussies. Speaking to Yolanda Redrup at The Australian Financial Review, he warned us that “Australia must quickly break its economic reliance on the mining and resources industries or risk seeing its substantial middle class crumble. Australia needed to become a technology-driven market and find a niche in which it could become a world leader or risk getting left behind.”

He also shared with us his views on one area of technology; Artificial Intelligence (AI). John believes that AI will be the first technology since the internet to overachieve its hype and have an impact way beyond its direction.

Given the importance of AI and John’s warning, let us have a quick look at what the Australian Government is doing about it. In our May 2018 budget, the Australian Government announced a $29.9 million program to advance AI and machine learning, along with the development of an AI Technology Roadmap. Do not be too impressed too quickly however. This investment is for four years and is almost fully committed already. Sounds less impressive now, doesn’t it? Our Minister for Industry, Science and Technology – Karen Andrews has however defended the government’s commitment to planning for impending tech-led changes to the economy. While experts warn the country risks being left behind by comparable nations pouring funding into Artificial Intelligence programs, Ms. Andrews does not believe Australia is under-investing in AI initiatives.

Is Australia Underinvesting?

Toby Walsh, a globally respected authority on AI at the University of New South Wales believes “That scale of investment per capita, or as a percentage of GDP, is not going to make us competitive on the world stage”.

But, how does our four year, $29.9m AUD investment compare to the rest of the world?

United States: US Government agencies have requested close to a billion USD in non-defence AI research spending for the fiscal year ending in September 2020. Interestingly enough, Anthony Robbins, Nvidia’s VP for the North American public sector believes that is “not nearly enough”.

China: China has big ambitions. They want to be a $150b USD world leader in AI by 2030. They have one of the most comprehensive AI strategies with initiatives and goals for R&D, industrialisation, talent development, regulations, ethical norms, and security. The Chinese government has partnered with national tech companies to develop research and industrial leadership in specific fields of AI and will build a $2.1 billion USD technology park for AI research in Beijing.

EU: The “Artificial Intelligence for Europe” strategy has several key initiatives including a commitment to increase the EU’s investment in AI from €500 million in 2017 to €1.5 billion by the end of 2020.

Canada: The Canadians were one of the first nations to release their AI strategy. Called the “Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy” and released in 2017, it includes a $140m AUD over five years government pledge to support the national research community on AI.

France: French AI Strategy was released in 2018 and is heavily focused on the social, ethical and economic aspects of the technology. France has committed $2.4 billion (€1.5 billion) over five years leading up to 2022.

Singapore: The Singaporean government has committed more than $540m AUD to fund AI activities under the Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 (RIE2020) plan.

Japan: Japan’s total budget for AI-related spending for the 2018-19 fiscal year is $1.3B AUD.

South Korea: The South Korean government has committed to $2.7 billion over five years leading up to 2022.

Lastly, let us look at Estonia. A small country with a population of 1.3m but arguably at the forefront of digital government initiatives. The Estonian government will invest at least $16m AUD in 2019–2021 to implement their AI strategy (fun activity, Google Kratt 😉 )

Given the above, I agree with Toby; our investment in AI is not going to make us competitive on the world stage.