Tech industry associations have lamented a “negligible” investment in AI in the federal budget, with an average of just $8 million provided over five years.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers handed down the federal budget in Canberra on Tuesday night, with $39.9 million over five years from 2023-24 earmarked for the development of policies and capabilities for the adoption and use of AI technology in a safe and responsible way.

The large bulk of this funding – $21.6 million – will go towards the existing National AI Centre and AI expert advisory body and a move to shift these away from the national science agency and into the Department of Industry.

The National AI Centre was stumped up by the former Coalition government in late 2021 under its $124 million AI Action Plan to “play a pivotal role in ensuring we can take advantage of AI technologies”.

In the two-and-a-half years since, the centre has been co-located with CSIRO’s Data61 data arm.

Earlier this year the federal government appointed a 12-person expert panel to guide the introduction of “guardrails” for the use of AI in high-risk situations, emerging from its Safe AI plan, to be in place until June this year.

This group will now sit within the Industry department.

The government will also provide $15.7 million over two years to support industry analytical capability and the coordination of AI policy development, regulation, and engagement activities across government, including reviews of existing regulations in healthcare and consumer and copyright law.

A further $2.6 million over three years has been allocated to respond to and mitigate against national security risks in relation to AI, while the Digital Transformation Agency has been tasked with developing and implementing policies to “position government as an exemplar in the use of AI”.

‘Inadequate’ AI funding

The Australian Computer Society (ACS), the professional association for Australia’s technology sector, welcomed the AI funding but said much more needs to be done.

“I’m pleased to see $39 million to support the safe and responsible adoption and use of artificial intelligence technology and the commitment to developing a National Robotics Strategy,” ACS president Helen McHugh said.

“[But] we are concerned that more must be done to help Australian businesses, governments and society deal with the challenges and seize the opportunities from these emerging technologies.”

Meanwhile, the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) expressed “profound disappointment” with the relatively small amount of funding provided for AI, which it said was “negligible” when compared with what governments around the world have stumped up.

“The persistent pattern of insufficient investments and slow adoption of transformative technologies threatens to keep Australia trailing behind its international counterparts,” AIIA CEO Simon Bush said.

“As other nations forge ahead in the AI race, Australia risks becoming increasingly uncompetitive and unproductive.

“The tech sector has suffered years and years of lack of support from successive Australian governments, which is counterintuitive to developing a competitive digital ecosystem.

“The stakes are high with the future productivity of our core industries at risk and our standard of living being eroded.”

The AI funding has also been welcomed by DIGI, the industry association representing large tech firms including Apple, Google, Microsoft, Meta and TikTok.

“DIGI welcomes the government’s investment in industry analysis and the coordination of AI policy development to support the safe and responsible adoption and use of AI, which has the potential to create jobs, boost productivity and increase prosperity and wellbeing for Australians,” the industry group said in a statement.

Tech upgrades

The federal budget also included a wealth of funding for a range of government tech projects, headlined by $630 million in funding for myGov along with guaranteed long-term support for the platform.

From this funding, $580.3 million over four years will go towards the sustainment of the platform and the continued development of its capability, while $50 million over four years has been set aside for ongoing enhancements.

On top of the funding boost, $139.6 million annually in ongoing cash will be provided to myGov and $5.2 million per year will go towards ongoing enhancements.

A whopping $1.2 billion over five years, equating to an average of $240 million per year, has been allocated for an aged care tech platform.

The budget documents state this will be for the “sustainment of, and essential enhancements to, critical aged care digital systems so they remain legislatively compliant and contemporary” and support the introduction of the new Aged Care Act from mid-next year.

Spare change for startups

Startups and early-stage tech firms barely rated a mention in the latest federal budget.

The only funding allocated specifically for startups was just $4.8 million over four years, or $1.2 million per year, for the establishment of two new Landing Pads in Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh City through Austrade.

The Landing Pads aim to help Australian tech startups to expand in new markets.