Address at the AFR Artificial Intelligence Summit 2024


I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, The Gadigal People of the Eora Nation and I pay my respects to elders past and present.

It’s great to be here with you at the first ever Financial Review AI Summit, particularly given the AFR’s commitment to focus on how technology is shaping the future prospects of this country.

Not through a myopic focus on tech itself, but on the creativity and ingenuity of Australians who apply it.

And doing so in an unvarnished way, acknowledging the good or otherwise.

As much as this is a Summit focussed on AI, I also want to take a lateral view about what AI will help us achieve in related fields, like automation.

You’ve heard our government talk about our absolute determination to deliver a Future Made in Australia; mobilising our strengths in industry to help tackle pressing issues – like the transition to Net Zero.

To succeed, we’ll need to sharpen our advanced manufacturing capabilities across a range of sectors. Automation will play an important role in shaping a Future Made in Australia.

Reinvigorating our industrial muscle, helping provide Australians with secure, well-paid jobs into the long term.

But to be blunt, we have a challenge to confront: we have to urgently renew the tools – the machinery – that supports our industrial base, if we want to achieve that ambition.

Today, the retirement of manufacturing assets in Australia outpaces the investment needed to replenish it, with capital stock depreciating by $190 million over 10 years.

Manufacturing assets are getting older. The average age of capital has risen from 11 to 13 years old over that same 10 years.

We have to turn this around, and investing in tech like robotics and automation is part of the solution.

We are at an inflection point in the history of robotics.

Robotics and automation owe their big developmental leaps to the advanced application of artificial intelligence. That’s going to continue.

Professor Simon Lucey has called the latest generation of robotics, “embodied AI”.

In the face of growing skills shortages and aging populations, countries are turning more and more to automated solutions alongside upskilling and investing in labour.

For the sake of workers whose future relies on us anticipating and supporting new markets and new industries, we need to carve out our own role in this next wave of automation.

And in ways that will benefit Australians, open up new opportunities for Australian workers, and support more products made in Australia.

Because a country that makes things is a country that creates secure jobs.

That’s one of the driving motivations behind the development of Australia’s first ever National Robotics Strategy, which I am releasing today.

If you want a demonstration of the power of automation and robotics to transform industry, look at some of our global competitors.

Germany retained its global lead in heavy industry and electronics by investing early and often in robotics.

Japan’s success largely built on confronting the reality it had to automate, in the face of an aging population and falling migration.

Much of America’s industrial might is due to its high-end use of robots, from farms to factories.

In these economies, automation has helped develop new markets, boost productivity and create secure, well-paid jobs.

And there are many developed countries manufacturing robotics and automation and selling them overseas to countries like ours.

I see their tech operating on the factory floors of so many Australian manufacturers I visit right across our country.

When I ask businesses where they purchased their process automation from, invariably they’ll rattle off a list of usual names: Italy, France, Germany.

There are many examples in Australia where we do robotics well – but we don’t talk about them enough.

●    autonomous vehicles operating in our mining sector
●    robotic fruit pickers helping ease labour shortages in agriculture
●    drones and submersibles monitoring maintenance needs of CBD skyscrapers through to the coral of the Great Barrier Reef.

There’s no reason automated technologies can’t be made here in Australia and sold to the world.

But we’ve not only been slow to adopt robotics – we’re equally slow to acknowledge our underlying strengths in robotics.

We’re ranked 32 in the world for the adoption of industrial robots.

But we’re in the top ten when it comes to research in robotics.

This doesn’t speak to a strange quirk in our thinking.

It points to a wider, deeper-set attitude that has to be addressed, by better valuing the power of Australian know-how.

One that doesn’t rely on another country to complete an idea that began in an Australian mind.

There are compelling reasons to increase uptake in AI-driven automation.

Over the past 20 years, Australia’s productivity has slumped.

In 2023, Treasury observed that productivity growth in Australia was at its lowest level in 60 years: 1.2 per cent per year.

Part of that is linked to the slowing down of the pace at which industries are replacing aging assets or embracing new technologies.

It has been off the back of a decade of disinterest in Australian manufacturing.

And yet – even a 1 per cent increase in robotics could lift whole of economy productivity by 0.8 per cent.

The strategy I am releasing today sets a vision for Australian industries embracing robotics and automation technologies in ways that strengthen competitiveness, boost productivity and support thriving local communities.

It targets the need to:

●    Boost research and development, commercialisation and scaling up of Australian solutions, targeting areas of Australian strength, such as field robotics and computer vision.

●    Support industries to integrate robotics and automation into their operations, in ways that can benefit Australian workers; and

●    Invest in upskilling and reskilling of Australian workers, widening our pipeline of robotics talent and supporting employees working alongside automation.

The strategy is designed to wake Australia up not just to the potential of robotics, but to showcase areas where we’re already a global leader.

I want to thank Professor Bronwyn Fox, who chaired our Robotics Advisory committee, a global leader in advanced manufacturing and materials science.

Who’s about to take up a new role as Deputy VC for Research and Enterprise at UNSW, following on from being CSIRO’s Chief Scientist.

I also want to thank the members of the Robotics Advisory Committee, for their expertise and commitment to scaling up Australia’s robotics ecosystem:

●    Catherine Ball
●    Hugh Durrant-Whyte
●    Andrew Dettmer
●    Sue Keay
●    Simon Lucey
●    Julia Powles; and
●    Mike Zimmerman

OECD research from last year shows automation can often complement human labor, increasing employment and job satisfaction.

It goes without saying that automation is going to do more dirty, dull and dangerous jobs so people don’t have to.

But the design and implementation of automation must be done with workers and communities, not to them. It has to create opportunities for new, highly skilled jobs.

This is why our Government has made investments in upskilling and reskilling workers a core focus in our first term.

A Future Made in Australia will entwine the skills of our people and the capabilities of our tech.    

Boosting industry adoption of AI

Investing in new ideas is one side of the equation.

Supporting businesses to take up new technologies is the other.

Mobilising industry for a Future Made in Australia will be a whole lot easier if we can get businesses of all shapes and sizes using AI.

In last year’s Budget we said we’d invest in setting up new centres helping SMEs integrate AI into what they do.

Today I’m also pleased to announce our AI Adopt Centres, focused on supporting SMEs across Australia, in particular in the priority sectors of the National Reconstruction Fund.

One centre will be driving AI adoption in manufacturing.

Another will lift AI use by SMEs in our regions, particularly in agriculture, forestry and low-emission sectors.

One will be focused on training opportunities for SMEs across sectors integrating AI in their operations: what it means, where they could get best bang for their buck.

As the pandemic experience showed, technology can help SMEs to not only keep operating in tough conditions but find ways to do things into the long term smarter, more efficiently.

Building trust in AI

I want more businesses seeing the benefits of AI.

But a key handbrake on adoption is a low level of community trust that AI is safe to use.

For each story about a business using AI to automate its logistics operations, or in precision farming, there’s an example of a business doing the wrong thing.

Concerns about deepfakes – of politicians, senior executives, celebrities, even friends and family – are leading people to doubt what’s real and what’s not.

So too are examples of AI systems giving dangerously incorrect advice.

And there’s growing concern from a whole range of artists whose work is being ripped off and repurposed without their consent.

Clearly there is serious work to be done to get community trust back.

Soon we’ll spell out the details on options for mandatory guardrails for developers and deployers of AI in high-risk settings, to ensure their products are safe to use.

And we’ll seek your views on the form those guardrails should take.


Countries with strong manufacturing capabilities possess strong, adaptable economies.

And the key ingredients to achieve this rest on the skills of our people paired with technologies to grow a nation’s competitive edge.

As much as the Albanese government is investing in the nation’s human capital, the skills or our people, we need to focus on how we can leverage our world recognised talents in technology to fashion the means to propel more sustained growth into the future.

I wish you all the very best for the Summit.