The pandemic-driven explosion in digitisation and rapid increase in artificial intelligence discoveries are two significant megatrends that could make or break Australia in the coming decades, according to a new CSIRO report.

The Our Future World report explores the seven global megatrends that will shape our society to 2042. It is an update to a report of the same name by CSIRO from 2012.

Among the seven megatrends are two tech-related advancements: the digital and data economy, and the rise in artificial intelligence and advanced autonomous systems.

These megatrends are “trajectories of change that typically unfold over years or decades and have the potential for substantial and transformative impact”.

CSIRO chief executive Dr Larry Marshall said these megatrends present both challenges and opportunities for Australia.

“Australia is at a pivotal point. There is a tidal wave of disruption on the way, and it’s critical we take steps now to get ahead of it,” Marshall said.

“From resource scarcity to drug resistant superbugs, disrupted global trade and an increasingly unstable climate threatening our health and way of life – these are just some of the challenges we face.

“But these challenges also tell us where the most powerful innovation can be found, when we see a different future and leverage science to create it.”

Data does the talking

The megatrends were identified by the CSIRO team analysing thousands of data points that have been collected over decades, report co-lead author Dr Stefan Hajkowicz said.

“Some of the trends we identified have been widely discussed, while others are newer and directly related to our experiences during the pandemic,” Hajkowicz said.

“We anticipate that while the pandemic sped up digital transformation, the real explosion in our capability is yet to come.

“In this environment, digital skills will become more valuable, but rather than replacing human intelligence, technologies like AI will assist us in doing our work better.”

One of the megatrends relates to the “pandemic-fuelled boom” in digitisation, seen through the rapid growth in the likes of teleworking, telehealth, online shopping, and digital currencies.

“The rapid adoption of digital and data technologies in recent times has meant that many sectors and organisations have experienced years’ worth of digital transformation in the space of months,” the CSIRO report said.

“While this progress has been significant, experts predict that this is just the tip of the iceberg, with the vast majority of digitisation yet to occur.”

According to the report, the next wave of digital innovation is expected to generate $10-15 trillion globally.

Based on currently available technologies, this could contribute $140-250 billion to Australia’s GDP by 2025.

Untapped opportunities

But compared to other advanced economies, Australia has found less value from its digital innovation, particularly when it comes to new digital industries.

“There are untapped opportunities for Australia to accelerate digital adoption and its associated productivity gains,” the report said.

The emergence of data-driven organisations has also been significant, the report found. According to International Data Corporation (IDC), 64.2 zettabytes of data (64.2 billion terabytes) were created or replicated in 2020, and this figure is expected to grow at a compounding annual rate of 23 per cent over the coming five years.

The other tech-related megatrend identified by CSIRO is the “explosion” in artificial intelligence discoveries and applications across a range of industries.

The number of peer-reviewed AI publications increased nearly 12 times from 2000 to 2019, while the share of AI-related patents grew from 2 per cent in 2000 to 2.9 per cent in 2019.

There have been “astonishing” improvements in the ability of software and machines to solve problems and perform complex tasks without explicit human guidance, the report said, and this will be pivotal in the coming decades.

“Today, practically all industry sectors and policy spheres in all regions of the world are increasingly adopting AI technology and developing their AI capabilities,” the report said.

“The global growth in AI research and investment is likely to continue and transform how all industries operate in the coming decades.”

There has been growing global investment in research and development around the world. In OECD countries, $2.1 trillion was spent on R&D in 2019, an increase from $1.4 trillion in 2000.

But there has been a decline in research and development spending and intensity in Australia across this same time, with this figure dropping from 2.1 per cent in 2011-12 to 1.8 per cent in 2019-20.

In 2019-20, R&D expenditure across all Australian organisations was less than the individual spends of Amazon and Alphabet.

“Keeping pace with global trends in R&D expenditure will be critical for Australia’s global competitiveness, particularly around AI and other technology developments,” noted the report.