Earlier this week an artificial intelligence-powered rapper was dropped from its label (yes, it had a label) after its algorithm learned to use racial slurs in its lyrics.
More usefully, a recent AI trial at Queensland’s Princess Alexandra Hospital was able to give early warnings as much as eight hours before a patient’s condition was predicted to decline.
Artificial technology is about to send a “tidal wave” of disruption through the way we work, according to a once-in-a-decade forecast by CSIRO, the national science agency.
The federal government is being urged to use the upcoming national jobs summit to “double down” on policies set by the former government to ride that tidal wave, or risk being rode over.
AI technology is forecast to replace as much as half of the work that is done today by 2030.
According to the head of CSIRO’s Data 61 Institute, Jon Whittle, you are likely already interacting with artificial intelligence all the time — you just may not realise it.
He pointed to “simple” AI like Google maps and voice assistants, but also robotics in mining and warehousing, or AI that detects breast cancer from mammograms.
“We still sometimes talk about AI as if it is a futuristic technology but it’s not, it’s actually here now. We all use it every day,” Professor Whittle said.
A 2019 McKinsey & Co report on automation in Australia laid out just how quickly industries are set to change.
The authors said by 2030 as many as 5 million Australians may need to change their occupation because of automation, with WA’s East Pilbara, Penrith in western Sydney, Mackay in Queensland, West Coast in Tasmania and Port Pirie north of Adelaide among the most exposed local government areas.
Even work that was widely thought to be immune to automation, particularly creative and emotional industries, is quickly proving to be just as exposed.
Just in the last year, AI systems DALL·E and Midjourney have exploded onto the visual arts scene, using massive data sources to generate convincing images in seconds, and sending a ripple of disquiet through arts and entertainment professions.
But Professor Whittle said he was not fearful these rapidly emerging technologies could spell the end for workers.
“Even things like DALL·E I don’t necessarily see as replacing human creativity but rather augmenting human creativity,” he said.
“A good example of this is that somebody used DALL·E to generate the front cover for Cosmopolitan magazine recently, and it sounds a great story right, the first magazine auto-generated by a machine.
“But if you look at what was actually done, there was over 100 hours of a human being involved in interacting with DALL·E to ensure the outputs being produced matched the style of the magazine and the creative licence of the magazine.”
Still, he said automation would change the nature of work — and that will need to be carefully managed.
CSIRO’s Data 61 institute co-designed an AI road map with the federal government last year that identified environmental health and infrastructure AIs as technologies Australia is well placed to take the lead on.
The research group’s chief executive, Professor Whittle, said the jobs summit was a chance to “double down on that”.
“All of these things are opportunities for the country. I wouldn’t say we should sit back and take our time,” he said.
“We should definitely grab them by the scruff of the neck if we want to take the lead.”
Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Andrew McKellar said the government needed to coordinate the change.
“There are strong pockets of awareness [in government]. Is it part of a coherent narrative that government is guiding and leading and educating on? I think in the recent past that hasn’t been the case,” Mr McKellar said.
“As we go into something like the Jobs and Skills Summit next week, I think this is an opportunity for government to reset that narrative.
“We need to be competitive.”
Australia was one of the first nations out of the blocks with its AI ethics framework, but now countries are moving to introduce laws to regulate automation technologies, and in some instances even outright ban them.
The European Union Parliament is debating a wide-ranging AI Act that would categorise technologies depending on the risks they pose to social wellbeing, with more stringent obligations on technologies that could be used to significantly disrupt society.
Among the proposed changes is an outright ban on facial recognition software, which in Australia was recently being used by retailers Kmart, Bunnings and Good Guys to monitor customers.
As countries move to enforce more responsible AI, Professor Whittle said there was also a responsibility to ensure workers were not left out.
“If jobs are going to morph, organisations therefore have a responsibility,” he said.
“If they’re introducing those technologies they have to be thinking do they need to be doing some reskilling of their employees at the same time.”
Despite the challenges, people who know AI well are more optimistic about the potential improvements it could bring, if the country moves quickly.
Professor Whittle said even if the technology was rapidly advancing, it would take time to be adopted by business.
“I wouldn’t say we can kind of sit back and bide our time, there’s definitely a sense of urgency about it, particularly in areas where Australia has the potential to lead,” he said.
The same McKinsey & Co report that detailed Australia’s exposure to automation also suggested automation would boost the average salary by as much as $15,000 this decade under the most rapid adoption scenario.
Conversely, automation could also cause income inequality to grow by 27 per cent without programs to manage the change.
Mr McKellar said if government and business don’t wrangle with AI policy soon, the country would suffer for it.
“It will determine what our place is in the world, it will have that sort of impact,” he said.
“There’s a lot riding on it.”
Shadow Industry Minister Paul Fletcher said there was nothing “magic” about the jobs summit, but that the government must seize the opportunity automation presents.
“It is important to make the point this is happening over time, it’s not happening overnight, and it has been happening for decades,” Mr Fletcher said.
“Ultimately the economists will tell us the best way to have rising wages is to have productivity improvements across the economy.”
The ABC made multiple requests for an interview with Industry Minister Ed Husic.
Professor Whittle said the jobs summit would be a chance to progress ideas on reskilling workers and educating boards to understand the risks and benefits of automation.
“AI is a bit like maths in a way, it’s going to be required in every discipline, and so we need to be training up future workers not just to be experts in health or law or manufacturing, or whatever it is, but to have those underlying digital AI skills as well,” he said.
“There’s a wonderful quote … in the past jobs were about muscles, currently they’re about brains and in the future about the heart.”
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