Opening remarks to World of Drones & Robotics Congress
Hi everyone. It’s a huge honour to be able to be here today. It means a lot to me personally because I’ve enjoyed participating in the Congress over many years. I’ve known Catherine now for over five years, and it has been a great pleasure to be able to work with her as well, and to all the organisers of this terrific Congress, thank you so much for everything that you do.
If I may begin by acknowledging the Turrbal people on whose land we meet today, and I want to pay my respects to elders past and present and also pay my respects to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the audience today.
As I said, I’ve had a connection with the Congress over many years. And even during lockdown, I participated virtually from Canberra and followed your work for many years. And I know that there are a lot of people that come together to make this a huge success. So if I can extend to each and every one of you that has been involved in the organisation of the Congress and thank you enormously for what you’re doing. It’s really important in terms of being able to showcase great, smart Australian thinkers that are applying what they’re doing in very practical and important ways.
If I can also just say g’day – I think I can see him up the back – Linus Power. Linus, how are you? Very good to see you. Now I’ve started down the tricky path of recognising a lot of people that I can recognise in the audience. There are some I’ll reference through my contribution today, but to Sarah Moran, thank you very much in terms of what you’re doing in terms of over a long period of time increasing diversity in STEM workforces. Thank you for you and your work. And there’s probably some others that I’ll reference through the course of the morning.
If I can say, I don’t like doing speeches in the normal way because I don’t want to put you through that. I want to be able to leave you with two things. I mean, I could come and talk about all the great things we’re doing – and we are, and I can table that list at the end of my presentation. But there are two things I wanted to achieve today to give you a sense of where our thinking is at as a new federal government and how that will apply in terms of yourselves. And the other thing that I wanted to do is extend an invitation to you all actually as part of Australia’s tech community and STEM community, and I’ll come back to that in the latter part of my contribution.
But it is important to recognise obviously and you live it and we all live it as a community - the pace of technological change is seemingly inexhaustible. It’s full of huge potential, but it also contains a potential risk and danger. We update our phones, our apps, our television sets with barely a second’s notice or thought. Our industries are constantly changing and adapting to new technology benchmarks. We need to ensure technology serves the interests of society and Australia and that we’re not there just to serve the interests of technology.
That’s one of the challenges of this century. It’s an important theme for me as the new Minister for Industry and Science in the Albanese government. We know that technologies like robotics, AI, quantum – all will have profound economic and social impact. No-one held back, no-one left behind. That’s one of the central themes of our new government.
I want to apply that very principle in how we manage technology and its great promise for our society. We have a goal of 1.2 million Australians being employed in tech-related jobs by 2030. To grow the industry in Australia we’re going to need more, not just people with specific skills but other skills as well to strengthen the long-term interests of what you’re doing.
And that may mean that we’re bringing in people that you wouldn’t necessarily on their face think, “Ah, intimately involved in technology,” but actually have an important role in sustaining your work. So, for instance, more historians, anthropologists, more policymakers, designers, product managers. Human creativity and empathy will only be more important to our future with technology. Already Australian industries have benefited from the adoption of robotics working with and alongside people creating safer, more productive work environments. The Australian mining and logistics sector, for instance, uses robotic technologies to improve extraction and safety, increase productivity and efficiency, reduce operating costs and, in fact, some of the biggest automated self-driving vehicles in the planet are located in Australian mines today.
The expertise is now being adapted and applied in other sectors, including pharmaceuticals and healthcare, agriculture and space. Robotic technologies have the potential to provide significant social, economic, environmental benefit to Australia and can have impact across the economy. But their application from a social perspective is really important as well.
I know Swoop, Aero Eric Peck – I don’t know if you’re here at the moment – but I’ve seen firsthand Swoop Aero’s work facilities in Melbourne and seen the work that they do, for example, in being able to deliver lifesaving medicines to remote communities particularly in our Pacific region. Again, thinking about the application of technology for social good.
In 2021 robotics companies were estimated to be worth $18 billion in annual revenue to the Australian economy up from $12 billion in 2018, according to the Robotics Australia Group. And I also want to recognise Dr Sue Keay. G’day, Sue. Very good to see you here always.
As the robotics industry matures and technologies advance more parts of the economy will adapt and adopt to robotic systems, and we as a new government want to support and work with you in finding the most productive ways to collaborate and support the Australian economy and society.
We’ve got immense research expertise, growing capability to produce innovative robotic solutions. In 2021, a team from CSIRO’s Data 61 Robotics, an autonomous systems group won second place in the DARPA robotics challenge, demonstrating Australia’s cutting-edge software, technology and research expertise. And we’re a global leader in field robotics, a class of service robots that operate in huge, unstructured outdoor domains and include aerial, land and underwater robots.
But we know that the robotics industry is facing barriers, and I’ve heard that it is difficult to secure capital and funding and support, particularly in the early stages of development, and it’s especially difficult given the capital requirements for commercialising hardware. I’ve also heard it’s challenging to attract and retain suitably qualified workers. We’re competing on the global market for the best and brightest, and also barriers to commercialising new IP and technologies such as limited support to enable collaboration, limited mobility between industry and research.
We have got a bourgeoning robotics sector here in Queensland that’s enabling and driving robotic uptake across resources and agriculture sectors. Many SMEs and business owners recognise the potential of robotics to improve productivity and give them a competitive edge. And importantly, too, robotics and automation will help a competitive manufacturing sector to better tackle national challenges, including the transition to renewables.
Ramping up our manufacturing capabilities will reduce dependence on overseas supply chains so we’re not exposed when the next global pandemic hits, which will be good for workers, society and the nation. That’s part of the reason why I was very keen for us to kick off - and we are now in the development of a National Robotics Strategy to think about all these things that I’ve referenced to you all today and that will look at, for example, the way in which robotics can be applied to help reinvigorate, for instance, manufacturing in Australia.
The turbocharging of technologies will mark an exciting new chapter in our growth and development. But this is the point where I come to the invitation, because as I said before, I could have droned on – that was completely unintended.
I could have gone on about all the things we’re doing as a new government. Interesting to me, not so much for you. But there are a number of things that I wanted to touch on.
For the cynics who wonder why on earth doesn’t government ever talk to us and listen to what we’re doing and try and factor in our views into the development of new policy, I’m here to tell you: I’ve heard you all. You’re seen. And there are four areas I want to talk about how there’s an opportunity for you all to shape the agenda of the new government.
You can shape the direction. We are willing to listen. As much as I’ve loved following the impact of technology on society and the economy for many years now, one of the most important things I can stress to you – and it might seem odd for a new Minister to say this to you – but in spite of knowing and following and reading and meeting and seeing people and what you’re doing, one of the first things – and my foundational points is – I don’t know it all. And I say that because, as has been pointed out by someone here today – innovation starts with conversation, and it’s a reminder we have two ears and one mouth. You can find that quote in this great book called Converge by Dr Catherine Ball. Catherine does make the point that if we want to work together on new things, we have to be willing to listen and to learn, and I am just wanting to emphasise to you all something I’m very keen to do.
And so in four areas you’ve got an opportunity all to be able to provide us with input. First, we are developing a National Reconstruction Fund and a Buy Australia plan. A National Reconstruction Fund is 15 billion that we’re intending to put for co-investment. One billion of it will be dedicated particularly to critical technologies and emerging tech. And we look to build capability post- pandemic, and we want to put it to work, which is why we want to reform government procurement and open up government contracts to people to be able to demonstrate to government what you’re capable of doing. And that is referenced in our Buy Australia Plan to build capability and put it to work.
We’ll be opening up a reference group. A bunch of people will be going around the country to get inputs from people about how we make decisions on those two things and, again, you’ve got the opportunity to inform our thinking and shape the way we go on the application of this huge – 15 billion – huge amount of money that we’re going to use to re-invigorate Australian industry.
The second area, human capital in three areas. We want to broaden the pipeline for talent, develop skills and build firms. So in broadening the pipeline in particular we’re reviewing all the things that we do to encourage people from underrepresented groups in STEM communities. And we’ve announced that we’ll be doing a review into the programs that are there but also, as a result of it, find the design features of programs that actually work and scale them up and apply them across. There are 300 programs designed to encourage women in STEM. But we want to be able to bring in people from all corners of the community to do the huge amount of work we know exists at the moment in dealing with skills shortages that are holding people back. So our review is designed to pick people up from different parts of the community and involve them in the work that you’re doing.
And that brings me to the second point, where the interest is there to develop the skills and make sure that you’ve got a talented workforce available for use in this endeavour. So our Digital and Tech Skills Compact will be opening up. We’ll be looking at different ways of training people up through the use of digital apprenticeships to be able to get young Australians trained up earlier and engaged in the work that you’re doing. And so you’ll have an opportunity there as well to shape the thinking about what skills to develop in a way that is most practical for you all.
And the third area – building new firms and encouraging entrepreneurialism. We’ve developed an initiative called “Start-up” Year where, for instance, university students who want to stay on for one more year of uni to develop their own firm, work with the university-based accelerator or incubator to develop that firm. We will modify the HECS scheme to provide a platform of capital to allow those firms to grow – 2,000 potentially new enterprises that can be created across a range of areas. But, importantly, sending a signal from government that entrepreneurism, setting up your own firm, is valued by government and we want to be able to support that growth.
So, in all those three things, you’ve got that opportunity. So National Reconstruction Fund, Buy Australian, human capital brings me to three: sharpening our thinking on our priorities. Our national science priorities have not been updated since 2015, and we've had a few things happen to us all in Australia and globally which would suggest that maybe it’s the right time to look at what those priorities can be. And there are a number of areas where we were looking at, for instance, introducing critical technologies and emerging technology and what we can do to support through research the development on Australian soil of what we can achieve.
And the consultation around that is going to open up in the new year, and I’ve said with the Chief Scientist who’ll be leading this work, we want to have a much more grassroots-driven approach. So again, you will all have that opportunity to inform the government’s science priorities longer term.
And finally, translating that into action. I mentioned the development of the National Robotics Strategy that we’ve kicked off. The Chief Scientist – we only just closed off consultation on the National Quantum Strategy, but, again, if you do have views and you work in this field and want to inform policy, please reach out to the Chief Scientist, because I am absolutely certain and can guarantee she will take on board the views in the development of that.
And we’ve got the critical technology statement. We’ve got a list of technologies that we’ll be updating every two years. We’ve gone through some of the consultation on that, but that is designed as well to get people particularly in my arena to think about both the potential for technology and the risks that we need to manage longer term as well.
So in all those areas that I’ve mentioned, you’ve got an ability to shape our thinking. I’d urge you, please, to engage. There’s no better time than when a new government comes in for you to have impact.
But the final thing I want to leave you on with all that work - what’s driving it? Why are we so engaged in this? And to be honest, you can do a- tick a box list of very mechanistic views as to what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. But can I emphasise to you this: the biggest thing is, that we need to do as a country, is to be able to have greater faith and value our know-how. There are a lot of incredibly smart people in this room and outside in the exhibit that are thinking of ways to apply technology not just in terms of making a buck – as important as it is because you’ve got to sustain yourselves and the people that work with you – but also making a positive social impact as well.
We have a lot of countries that value our know-how seemingly better than we do ourselves. And so, I am very keen for us to change that. To change the thinking. To be able to celebrate what you do and to support it longer term, because ultimately it will have a huge and profound impact on the quality of our lives across the country.
And if we have at the start, at the outset, a view that that’s exactly what we want to do, that the ambition is for us to improve the quality of life no matter where you live in the country and to call you up to be involved no matter what corner of the country you are in. If we have that ambition, I believe with what we’ve seen so far we have got huge opportunity to achieve what I’ve said, which is to transform and tell the rest of the world that we are a country that is not only open for business but that we mean business and that we can have an impact at global scale.
So thank you again for what you’ve done through the Congress. But thank you, more importantly, for what you’re doing for our country. And I look forward to seeing more of – I did an initial walk with Catherine through and seeing some of the things that are being done. But I look forward to engaging with you all and look forward to seeing the fruits of your labour. Thank you, again, for everything you do.