We are living in a new golden age of artificial intelligence (AI) with the emerging technology dominating research and ushering new scientific breakthroughs, according to a report from the CSIRO, but interest in the development and use of AI may once again come to a grinding halt.

In its Artifical Intelligence for Science report published this week, national science agency CSIRO noted that current AI boom is the biggest the world has ever seen and is touching all manner of industries and knowledge domains.

“Human curiosity will always be at the heart of science, but these technologies combined with deep domain understanding are increasingly helping to open-up new frontiers for knowledge discovery,” CSIRO Chief Scientist Professor Bronwyn Fox said.

“AI is also helping to deliver higher-impact, real-world solutions to Australia’s greatest challenges, like AI to help detect disease, predict bushfires and manage the enormous amount of data we are gathering about our universe.”

Worldwide, the proportion of peer-reviewed papers that involve AI has been steadily growing over the last 20 years with AI attracting more citations in 2020 than any other individual field of research.

CSIRO notes that the current AI golden age, while unprecedented in its scale and expansion into fields outside computer science, isn't the first time AI has been in the scientific spotlight.

Typically, periods of high AI interest in scientific communities have been followed by bust periods known as ‘winters’.

Back in 1974, the first AI winter was triggered, according to CSIRO, by a report from British mathematician James Lighthill who criticised AI’s inability to reach its lofty goals and caused research funding for the technology to dry up.

AI was back in vogue during the early 1980s but by the end of the decade it was business' turn to become sceptical of the returns AI investments were delivering and by 1993, hundreds of AI companies had shuttered their doors.

There is much hype

CSIRO says that many of the conditions that historically ushered AI winters are once again present.

“There has been a huge and sudden boom in investment. There is much hype,” the Artificial Intelligence for Science report says.

“Expectations are running high, and there is considerable mythology and confusion surrounding AI’s capabilities and functions. If AI again fails to deliver on its perceived promises, it may enter another winter.”

Still, CSIRO remains optimistic that the raw scale of AI adoption over the last decade or so will mean disillusionment of the technology’s efficacy will likely be contained to specific domains.

Extending the seasonal metaphor, the report claims that “the field of AI has become so large and diverse it is likely to be experiencing all four seasons in sub-fields, application domains, geographies and industry sectors at any one point in time”.

The report demonstrates how much AI has grown with statistics around AI skills all showing significant increases in the number of AI-related courses at universities, the number of job ads that mention AI, and how many people are now claiming some experience with AI in their LinkedIn profiles.

Keeping up with the demand for AI talent in the coming years will require greater AI literacy among the general population and a bigger focus on science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) skills among young people.

If Australia and its research institutions can properly harness AI, it could lead to an economic boom following a post-COVID recession.

The paper points out that the ‘Roaring 20s’ following the Spanish Flu pandemic was a period of high economic growth driven by “the general-purpose technology of electricity”.

“It is possible that AI is the general-purpose technology of our time which leads to improved productivity in science which, in turns, improves productivity and growth in the whole economy,” the paper says.