My entrepreneurial father questioned my decision to pursue a career in information technology in the early eighties. Computers, he said, would become a workplace menace, killing jobs and creating an underclass of unemployed.
It was one of the few times my father was wrong about the future. Like many, he underestimated the jobs computers would create and technology’s benefits to society.
Fast forward 40 years and similar misgivings are emerging, namely, that robots will decimate labour markets by replacing human workers in more jobs. Even executive roles and professions like accounting and the law will not be immune from automation’s reach.
Having recently attended the Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Conference in London, I am sure the next wave of technology – possibly the most profound in human history – will create more jobs than it destroys.
But a massive adjustment will be needed. Western Australia is far from ready.
Where is the informed debate among our State’s politicians and bureaucrats on the opportunities and threats of artificial intelligence?
Where is the plan to make WA a leader rather than a laggard in the digital economy?
Where is the policy to equip West Australians, from our youngest to our oldest, with the skills needed to capitalise on artificial intelligence technologies?
Politicians on both sides, federally and at State level, have lost their nerve. Innovation policy is painted as a “vote killer” because electors associate it with disruption and job loss. What rot.
Higher rates of innovation will drive artificial intelligence in WA. We need to develop new industries in the State, expand existing ones, diversify our economy and create jobs.
Innovation will accelerate when WA has a considered and bold strategy to bring together stakeholders across industry, research and government sectors, connecting our trailblazers with financiers and entrepreneurs.
With foresight, WA could build on the exceptional work of our leading companies in artificial intelligence. BHP and Rio Tinto are already using robotics in the workforce and Woodside Energy is using artificial intelligence to better manage oil platforms.
WA has the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre, the Southern Hemisphere’s largest public-research supercomputer and significant supercomputing capabilities in the private sector. Clearly, we have the brawn for the artificial intelligence revolution.
We stand on the brink of the “Industrial Revolution 4.0”. Cyber-physical systems incorporating artificial intelligence, smart grid energy systems, self-driving vehicles and robotics will change everything.
Multiply the effect of these changes many times over as billions of machines talk to each other through the “Internet of Things” and one starts to get the magnitude of change ahead.
Imagine a hospital where nurses spend more of their shift caring for patients and using their empathy and intuition to help them, rather than wasting hours on paperwork (medical-monitoring technology will automate patient data collection).
Or when Microsoft’s new “Seeing AI” app for iPhones enables visually impaired people to see objects and recognise friends via their phone camera, with Siri announcing what the camera sees.
Imagine when IBM’s artificial intelligence machine, Watson, reads, remembers and interprets 25 million cancer-research reports to more accurately prescribe treatment regimes. Drug discovery will become faster and cheaper, curing more disease.
This is not science fiction. These and other artificial intelligence technologies are in use and many more are on the way. Life as we know it will change for the better.
WA must change: from a State that has historically relied on mining and agriculture to one that builds high-tech industries around its core strengths.
Why can’t WA lead the world in the application of artificial intelligence in resources and farming?
This is the time to think big. The Human Genome project in the United States generated $141 in economic activity for every $1 of taxpayer funds invested. What return could we expect from $1 of well-targeted public investment in artificial intelligence for agriculture?
WA policy on artificial intelligence must start with people. It should begin in primary schools through a genuine STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) approach to learning. It should extend across our secondary schools and universities so that WA is stocked with artificial intelligence skills that our companies can utilise.
These skills, combined with our very humanness, will be what enables us to accelerate progress. Our natural ability to empathise, to emotionalise, to create art, to tell stories, to commune will set us apart from the machines. Human intelligence will be central to the development and implementation of artificial intelligence.
Ultimately, it is people who will make all the difference in the coming technology transformation.
With our talent, and our State’s natural strengths, WA can mastermind a revolution.
For more information, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Barrington is founder of Barrington Consulting Group, a leading strategy consultancy, and Chairman of GotSkill Platforms Ltd, Perth International Arts Festival and Anglicare WA.