When it comes to moonshots, Artificial Intelligence, and its ability to create Society 5.0, is one we should be reaching for.

larry Marshall presenting at the AFR summit

This speech was given by Dr Larry Marshall at the AFR Innovation Summit on Monday 30 July 2018.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora nation as the Traditional Owners of the land that we are on today, and pay my respect to their Elders past and present.

It’s great to be back at the AFR Innovation Summit, and thank you to our morning speakers for setting a strong focus on the power of innovation to shape our future.

Before I was the Chief Executive of Australia’s national science agency, I was an inventor, an entrepreneur, a venture capitalist and of course a kid.

I grew up in a time where people were obsessed with the power of the computer and its ability to replace humans, our parents told us to study computer programing. A lot of my friends became programmers. Instead, I studied physics and hardware and used software as a tool when needed.

Reflecting on the choices I made and the disruption we are facing as a nation, I think there is a lesson for how Australia builds its innovation ecosystem. We can’t hope to compete with the money being thrown at things like AI elsewhere in the world. We need to find our unfair advantage.

Today I want to talk about the call for Australia to rally around national missions – or ‘moonshots’. In particular, the connection between these bold, visionary missions, and what they mean for our industries of the future.

When it comes to moonshots, I believe that Artificial Intelligence, and its ability to create Society 5.0, is one we should be reaching for.

So today I’ll talk about:

  1. The AI moonshot;
  2. The early AI inroads we’re making with Australian industry; and
  3. The AI workforce of the future.

By the time we move into the panel discussion at the end of my talk, I hope you’ll have a sense of the great depth and breadth of what we’re doing at CSIRO to achieve this moonshot, and some seed of an idea about how we can work together toward to achieve this mission.

The AI moonshot

So first, what do I mean when I say AI is a moonshot?

For 100 years, Australia’s national science agency has wrestled with Australia’s greatest challenges. We rid the environment of prickly pear and rabbits, and earlier this month we had a breakthrough in wiping out mosquito colonies in Far North Queensland.

When we first set out to solve these challenges, they were moonshots – ambitious, exploratory and ground-breaking projects that would draw on a wide array of expertise and partnerships.

CSIRO created Australia’s first radar to defend Darwin in WW2. That led to The Dish which enabled millions around the world – and me sat watching a black and white TV in infants school – to see mankind reach the moon in 1969.

We also created Australia’s first computer– and the two together, radar and the computer, enabled us to invent WiFi – all driven by CSIRO physics.

These innovations caused exponential disruption, but also created jobs, new industries and new ways for us to communicate, connect and learn.

In 1962, when I was born, JFK committed Americans to reaching the moon, he said we choose to go to the moon:

“not because it is easy, but because it is hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win”.

It is the same sentiment in the ISA 2030 Report when talking about national missions – they bring all parts of the nation together to solve a momentous challenge, and inspire the next generation.

But JFK also said the greatest threat was automation back in sixties – So why AI? – because JFK’s threat turned out to be a great opportunity in disguise and instead of consuming jobs, automation drove up the US standard of living to the highest in the world.

Today’s burning question, will AI be similar?

Perhaps I can use CSIRO as a microcosm of greater Australia and share how it has affected us so far.

Three years ago I spoke at this summit and said I imagined CSIRO could be the cornerstone of the Aussie innovation ecosystem – like Intel was in Silicon Valley and Israel. We have spent the past three years reinventing ourselves and digital disruption has played a significant role in how we have refocused who we are and what we do.

In 2015, we used sophisticated modelling and primitive AI to create the Australian National Outlook – a world first attempt to understand and analyse the connections in Australia’s environmental and physical economy many decades into the future. The result was a piece of work which is helping us to navigate a path to prosperity through global disruption. We used it to disrupt ourselves – aligning our science to solve the problems we foresee for the nation in the hope of turning those national challenges into opportunities.

Over the past couple of years, CSIRO has released a series of industry roadmaps. So far they’ve covered areas including food, mining, medical technologies, the electricity grid and energy resources. And in coming months, we’ll release roadmaps for cybersecurity, hydrogen, health and space.

Intrigued by our agriculture and food moonshot, Agro-chemical company NuFarm came to CSIRO to explore a future industry as laid out in one of our roadmaps, and together, we’ve grown that vision into a market disruption.

Nutritionists have recognised the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for many years, which we traditionally get from eating fish. But demand for omega-3 oils is growing faster than can be sustainably supplied from wild fish stocks.

Using gene technology, our scientists transferred omega-3 oil production capability into canola, Australia’s largest, oilseed crop. It is the most complex piece of metabolic engineering so far achieved in plants.

What has this got to do with AI?

The gene-sequencing technology we use to identify, isolate, and improve the grains is based on AI.

AI and digital have reinvented our largest and oldest group – Agriculture – today, three years later, 40 per cent of their research is now ‘digital’ – that’s a great proof point for Australia’s agriculture industry.

We created a dedicated One Health group – creatively called CSIRO Health and Biosecurity – they have demonstrated the first scientific evidence of data saving lives in the emergency room, which uses an early version of AI to predict the future – improving patient outcomes and saving millions for Queensland hospitals.

We also created Australia’s leading data innovation group – more creatively called Data61 – who house Australia’s Cybersecurity growth centre, and are leading the development of an AI roadmap and ethics framework for Australia on behalf of the Government.

To increase our access to unique data, we recently made a joint-investment with Boeing’s VC fund, HorizonX Ventures, and our own VC fund, managed by Main Sequence Ventures, into an Internet of Things start-up called Myriota. Myriota specialises in using satellite technology to gather vast swathes of big data from remote locations in industries like agriculture, environment, and defence.

The early AI inroads we’re making with Australian industry

CSIRO is at the cutting-edge of applying AI to a lot of our research – from digital agriculture to smart energy grids to safer, more efficient manufacturing – and a lot of these new and emerging industries will create jobs of the future.

For example, Australian water utilities currently spend around $1.4 billion a year on repairs and maintenance to their infrastructure. As we all know, prevention is better than cure. But to assess water pipes for leaks or vulnerabilities is expensive and disruptive – so much so that water utilities typically only inspect one per cent of their network assets each year.

That’s why we’re collaborating with more than 30 utilities from around the world to develop data-driven analytics technology that accurately predicts pipe failure.

Bushfires are dangerous to people and homes in their path – and even more dangerous to those brave enough to fight them. They’re also hard to predict. Our researchers developed a tool called ‘Spark’ to predict and analyse fires. It takes our current knowledge of fire behaviour and combines it with state-of-the-art simulation science to produce predictions, statistics and visualisations of bushfire spread. This technology has been honed in collaboration with fire services across Australia and is used by almost all of them today.

Investing in research into AI ensures Australia stays at the forefront of job creation in new industries, predicting and preparing for them before they emerge. But knowing where to invest is hard, because we have to predict the future, but AI helps there, too, as evidenced by Australia’s National Outlook initiative.

At CSIRO, the dusty 70’s labs I worked in as a PHD student are gone. We have opened our labs up to startups like Baraja, who are developing AI technology for self-driving cars, we have launched a national accelerator program called ON, we have created Australia’s only science Venture fund – making ten investments already – and we are closer to catalysing the innovation ecosystem Australia has always lacked.

The AI workforce of the future

To really harness AI, we actually need to go a step further. We need to invest not just in the way we think about AI but also invest in fuelling the minds which will unleash its potential in the future.

As I mentioned at the start of my speech, when I was a kid I had to choose between science and business, but having launched six startups and surviving two IPOs later myself, I’m convinced STEM skills outperform business skills in navigating the innovation era.

To ensure a long and prosperous future for Australian industries, we need to ensure Australia grows its pipeline of AI-literacy – which is really STEM literacy.

I’ve heard people say that coding is all kids will need to know in the future, but I disagree. What is most important is to instil our children with the ability to learn how to learn. That is the beauty of science. It teaches you how to tackle problems and gives you a toolkit to approach any problem.

The most important thing to remember, in the face of all of the hype, is that for machine learning technology to work well, it needs to ‘learn’ and it is our role to help give this technology real intelligence.

When Bill Ferris and the Innovation and Science Australia team released their 2030 Report a few months ago, they called for Australia to rally around a national mission like becoming the healthiest nation in the world. They proposed it not just because we would all be healthier, but because it inspires the next generation of health innovators.

When you have a wellspring of ideas and talent, you can build everything else you need around it to get innovation – but without that wellspring, you have nothing.

CSIRO runs a number of different programs in our schools and universities to help strengthen this pipeline, but we will all need to invest more if we want a greater ROI.

New programs

Earlier this month we were thrilled to be part of a $25million announcement from the Australian Government to form an Indigenous Girls STEM Academy, and to support more Indigenous women teaching STEM in our schools.

And from high school to university, last month we announced a new program to be piloted right here in Sydney, at UNSW, called Venture on Campus – established by Main Sequence Ventures via the CSIRO Innovation Fund. The custom-made program for UNSW researchers and startups will deliver insights into the venture capital mindset and the skills required to navigate it.

Closing remarks

So today I’ve talked a bit about why AI is a moonshot, a couple of examples of how we’re using it to create industries of the future, and the pipeline of talent we must continue to strengthen to ensure we seize these opportunities into the future.

We have taken the first steps towards determining our future with AI, but more people, more industries, and more communities must join the conversation.

Will computers replace some existing jobs? YES, at least 40%. But CSIRO’s experience is that by embracing disruptive digital technologies in our own research, it has freed up our people focus on things which deliver more value and this has led to broader growth.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my children to have to have to go overseas, or spend time in the Valley, to be innovators. I want them to grow up in an Australia that embraces innovation – an Australia that celebrates risk taking and failure as the greatest teacher – an Australia that empowers them to be whatever they want to be.

CSIRO invented Australia’s first radar to defend Darwin, her first computer to harness the power of data, her oldest genetics group to make crops grow here.

These were massively disruptive technologies invented by science that ultimately enhanced our lives and grew our economy.

AI might seem more disruptive still, and a bit scary, but at CSIRO we see it as another opportunity to do what we’ve been doing for 100 years – solving the seemingly impossible with science, delivering the moonshots to make life better for every single Australian.

That’s the real moonshot, no one left behind.