ANALYSIS: Brisbane has the talent and ideas to be a global AI hub


Words by Dr Natalie Rens, AI Specialist for the Office of the Queensland Chief Entrepreneur

Many of you will have heard of artificial intelligence (AI). You are probably aware that it is not the indestructible Arnie chasing after you in an old, abandoned factory but you may not realise how much of your life already functions on AI. As a general rule, any digital system that exhibits an aspect of human intelligence, such as perception or decision-making, is likely to be running on AI.

Have you ever wondered how Google Maps precisely knows every location you search for? The amount of imagery data that would need to be analysed to annotate each house address in the entire world would take an army of workers several years. Instead, we use AI. Using a combination of deep learning techniques, Google automatically identifies street names and address numbers from locations in order to complete their highly detailed maps.

On a side note, you can even use AI on Google street maps to figure out your neighbourhood’s political beliefs.

What about the quick financial update you read in the morning before work? Also AI. Simple reporting articles, such as news on finance, sports results, entertainment gossip or weather, are now being written by bots. At the Washington Post, this simply requires the editor selecting the headline and data set before the bot, Heliograf, uses natural language generation to produce an article.

Beyond that, AI is already being used in almost any industry you can think of, be it autonomous vehicles, educational tools, fraud detection and cybersecurity, or in medical treatment to save lives. It is said that AI is the greatest invention of our century, and perhaps even our final invention.

Brisbane’s strong AI scene

It is no secret that Australia, as a country, fairs somewhat abysmally when it comes to AI. As of yet, we have not poured the resources into policy, investment or even education that leading countries have.

However, within Brisbane there sits a shining beacon of light. When I started the meetup Brisbane.AI with Dr Juxi Leitner one year ago, we were simply hoping to find others with a shared interest in AI. Today, the group has grown to almost 2000 members with a regularly monthly attendance of 150 members. That’s a decent gathering of AI nerds.

Even more exciting, many of those I meet are applying AI in their startups to tackle real-world challenges. I find the talent here remarkable and I’m not the only one impressed. Chris Raethke, founder of AI startup Pinch, decided to return to Brisbane from San Francisco last year, stating that “something’s changed in the air here”.

“Even just going to a few meetups and seeing how much talent there was; really talented people who either, one, had really amazing ideas of their own or, two, were looking for things they could actually do that were real. They wanted to be valuable.”

While Chris works on the challenge of creating a virtual meeting secretary, others are tackling everything from medical diagnosis to music generation. Max Kelsen entered a partnership with QIMR Berghofer spin-off GenomiQa to develop a genomic sequencing tool to predict the efficacy of cancer treatments and Maxwell MRI recently received funding to expand on their platforms for cancer diagnosis and personalised health care.

After a successful start at Techstars in the US last year. Popgun.ai has also secured funding from Silicon Valley to continue development of their AI “Alice” that is learning to create pop music. So watch out - the next big hit could be straight out of Brisbane.

AI augmenting other industries in Brisbane

AI can also be considered a horizontal industry, in that it augments other established industries.

Robotics has an incredibly strong presence in Brisbane, with AI being used to provide the smarts inside the machinery. The Australian Centre for Robotic Vision at the Queensland University of Technology won last year’s Amazon Picking Challenge, taking home a cash prize for the best performance in identifying and picking up warehouse objects.

Queensland has also won the bid for the Australian Collaborative Research Centre for Trusted Autonomous Systems, which will develop drone and robot technology for the defence force and, recently, Boeing announced a partnership with state government to develop their largest autonomous systems program outside of the US.

Another one of our key strengths could be in the use of AI for a precision health care system.

Queensland’s electronic medical records are currently in a process of aggregation that will allow for advanced analysis of state health data, opening the avenue for a game-changing development of personalised diagnosis and treatment.

There is one additional industry we could truly, and uniquely, excel in - space exploration. Every aspect of our mission to colonise the stars is going to require us to push our limits and, with this month’s release of our Australian Space Agency, what better time to step up as a state embracing the next frontier?

We already have state-wide strengths in robotics, health, construction, agriculture and energy, as well as our own rocket company. All of these industries will need to be pushed to the extreme to succeed in space but, if we add to them our growing entrepreneurial AI talent, we have what it takes to become a global hub.

All those 90's sci-fi movies may not be as far off the mark as you might think.

There’s no doubt about it, AI needs humans

In order to grow our AI industries, we will need to focus on increasing the number of workers with AI skill. The recent report from job site Indeed indicated eight times more AI jobs than applicants in Queensland currently. Talent is scarce enough that many local companies will have to provide the opportunity for existing employees to learn AI.

Fortunately, I have seen strong interest already from both students and professionals attending AI training courses, again reflecting the hidden talent we have here in Brisbane. As an initiative of the Office of the Queensland Chief Entrepreneur, I also plan to launch an AI centre in Brisbane later this year that will provide opportunities to learn and develop AI projects.

Our next generation will also need to be equipped with the tools to ensure they set off on the right foot, which could include good mathematics if they are to develop AI, or well-developed soft skills if they are to slot into the roles that increasing automation creates.

Introducing coding alone will not save our children; they need a curriculum that teaches them how to adapt, learn, and re-learn, as they will need to do for the rest of their lives.

A final concern, and core to Advance Queensland’s policy, revolves around how to keep our best and brightest in Brisbane. This is especially challenging when good AI engineers in the US get paid as much as an NFL quarterback. One solution is to ensure we create the type of environment in Brisbane that will keep, as well as attract talent. Namely, the opportunity to work on sufficiently hard and meaningful problems (like space).

AI and the future it can create

Looking further ahead, it is clear we will have serious questions to face as AI develops. While the immediate concerns will revolve around employment shifts, future AI developments may increasingly challenge our idea of what it means to be human. If we develop an AI that can learn, be creative, and act appropriately in social settings, where does that leave us?

Of more concern, what happens if we create an agent of superior intelligence to us? Having long enjoyed our place at the top of the intelligence hierarchy, we may find our relegation to “AI pet” somewhat jarring.

There are no answers to these question for now but, with the insane pace of progress we currently face, it is important to keep these in mind as we continue to advance with AI. As Chris says, his rule to building AI is to ask, “How can AI let me be more human?”

A few decades from now it is predicted that almost every aspect of our civilisation will be powered by AI. Here in Brisbane, we sit with an incredible amount of potential to achieve something great, but it will take the ambition to step confidently forward now.

We have an opportunity. We have a choice. What future will we build with AI?

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