As artificial intelligence continues to creep into everyday life, the Australian government has pledged $29.9 million over four years to enhance local AI capabilities.

Treasurer Scott Morrison announced in Tuesday night’s budget that “research in artificial intelligence” was to be included as part of the Government’s $2.4 billion investment into Australia’s science and technology capacity.

The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science will receive the bulk of the funding ($26 million), alongside the CSIRO ($2.3 million) and the Department of Education and Training ($1.5 million).

“This measure will support Cooperative Research Centre projects, PhD scholarships and school-related learning to increase knowledge and develop the skills needed for AI and machine learning,” the budget papers state.

Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of New South Wales and ACS AI Ethics Committee Member, Professor Toby Walsh, welcomed the funding, but questioned whether it was enough to poise Australia as a global leader in the field.

“It would be ungrateful to say that $30 million isn’t useful, but if this is really an innovation government and we really want to compete against people who are putting in very large sums, I’d very much hope the government is going to back that up with some serious cash in the future,” he told Information Age.

He pointed to South Korea, the United Kingdom, France, India and China – all of whom have recently invested significantly more than Australia’s $29.9 million into local AI.

Vice President of AI company OpenText Australia & New Zealand, Mike Lord, also highlighted the benefits stronger investment would bring.

“Of course, the greater the investment, the more opportunities we as a nation can glean from AI,” he said. “However, the government’s dedication in this year’s budget is a strong step in the right direction.”

An ethical framework

The government also indicated that there would be increased regulation in the space, with a “Technology Roadmap, a Standards Framework and a national AI Ethics Framework,” all in the pipeline.

These measures are in place to ensure the “responsible development of these technologies,” according to the budget document.

“I think that’s very appropriate and very timely,” said Walsh on the ethics framework. “There’s a story breaking almost every day about ethical concerns, about how the technology is being used and about how we need to start regulating quite soon.”

He gave the recent example of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica to illustrate the threat of powerful technology being left unregulated.

“With immense power comes immense responsibility,” he said.

“I think AI is starting to play a very important role in many aspects of life. It’s starting to be used to decide who gets credit, who gets welfare, who gets locked up even – and with that comes immense responsibility.”

He also identified a common misconception regarding the ethics of AI.

“We’re discovering that there are some very difficult ethical questions to be answered when we hand over decisions to algorithms,” he said.

“Some of the things that maybe we were led to believe in the past, such as that algorithms are unbiased, are not exactly true and algorithms can be just as biased -- and in fact worse than humans -- especially when they’re trained on historical data.”