Pearcey Oration


ED HUSIC, MINISTER FOR INDUSTRY AND SCIENCE: Evening, everyone. First, I want to acknowledge the peoples of the Kulin nation and pay my respects to elders past and present. It means a lot to be here tonight. I’ve attended Pearcey Foundation functions in times past and recognised the posh value of bringing people together in the way that you do, so it does mean a lot, Wayne. Thank you very much, Wayne and Kelly, for the invite tonight. I want to recognise Fran Bailey, very nice to see you. I also want to recognise my good friend Alan Griffin, did that sound genuine? [Laughter.] 

ALAN GRIFFIN: As genuine as it’s ever sounded. 

ED HUSIC: Yeah, I knew he’d get me back. It is very good to see you both here tonight. 

Ian Oppermann, who’s just here in front of us. We grew up in the same suburb in Western Sydney in Blacktown. He went to Evans High. I went to Mitchell High, and I ended up being the big mouth and he was the big thinker. It is very good to be able to be with you tonight, and a number of people that are here with us. 

If I can also, I just wanted to, in particular, recognise some other people. I know once you start down this slippery slope you don’t know where you’ll end, so I’m going to basically acknowledge you all individually [Laughter.] 

Martin Hosking, always modest but I think should be celebrated, along with Lenny Mayo, who – I’ve both known you for many years and I’ve been very grateful. I’ve been interested in this space for the bulk of my time as a parliamentarian, but my ability to get across developments as they were unfolding and the importance of parliamentarians in particular thinking about this is a big deal, and I’m very grateful, and if I can, I think it’s just an opportunity I don’t think I would normally have to thank you both in front of a crowd like this for what you’ve done, so thank you very much. [Applause.] 

That’s legitimately, Martin, because he didn’t smile. [Laughter.] It’s just like, “Don’t say nice things about me. I don’t want nice things said about me.” 

Jason Lohrey, I don’t know who I’m prouder about: Jason or his mum. Seriously, Jason, like you’ve done a mighty job. It was incredible to hear your contribution tonight, your family’s story and a story of persistence; dedication to use your skills and time to support, as well, so much in terms of the turning, the transforming of ideas into something that’s built something very big and made a huge contribution. So, it is terrific to see you honoured in the way that you have been tonight. 

In preparing for this evening, I looked through some of the past Pearcey orations, and it is humbling to be included among a group of speakers who’ve done so much to shape the technology and computing landscape in this country here and overseas, in politics, science, business, public service. There were people like Senator Kate Lundy, who I consider one of the leading champions of Australia’s digital economy during the Rudd and Gillard years. I think you’ve recognised her contributions. 

The late Dr Terry Cutler, I think it’s important to recognise his 2008 review of Australia’s innovation ecosystem sought to rejuvenate and reinvigorate our faith in Australian ideas. Digital leaders like the late Paul Shetler; CSIRO’s Dr Megan Clarke. And what struck me looking through those past orations was the persistence of certain themes – the need for a vision for Australian innovation that goes beyond digging things out of the ground and shipping them overseas. [Applause.] 

A nagging frustration with the country’s reticence to celebrate our science and technology leaders as passionately as we do our sporting heroes. An enduring faith that Australia has the people, the environment, the capability to compete with the best in the world in producing technologies and research. If you wanted proof that video that was aired earlier is proof of that. 

Dr Trevor Pearcey, the father of computing in this country believed in a bold and inventive Australia. He dreamt big, moved people, institutions, and whole sectors to help him make his vision a reality. It’s hard to imagine it now, because computers are in our homes and in our back pockets, but when Dr Pearcey first proposed his idea for an Australian made computer, people must have thought – to use the term – he was dreamin’. 

In the late 40s when Dr Pearcey said, “We should build a computer”, there were no digital computers in Australia; there were barely any in the world. And the idea of computers capable of acting like encyclopedia, making complex calculations, playing music, imitating human speech was the stuff of science fiction, and yet somehow, he convinced CSIRO’s predecessor, the Commonwealth Council for Scientific and Industrial Research to spend serious money and contribute valuable people so that one of the first truly digital computers ever created could be built right here in this country. 

CSIRAC, or CSIR Mk1 as it was originally called, is believed to be the fourth digital computer ever constructed in the world and we built it, this island nation, far from those other early computing pioneers in the US and the UK. If there’s one thing that frustrates me today is being told we shouldn’t think big, that we can’t afford to take risks, that the best a small country can try to aim for are small ideas. Because somehow over the intervening half century since we built one of the world’s first digital computers, we’ve forgotten that Australia is a nation forged not just by our challenging landscape, vast continent, shared history, but the outsized scale of our technological and engineering achievements. That the history of engineering, technological, innovative achievements in this country is the oldest in the world. Remember, it extends back 65,000 years – the first people who were here had to use their wits to survive in one of the toughest continents in the planet. 

There have been times when the world has turned to watch us, not just on the track or in the pool, but because we were testing the limits of what was thought humanly possible. 

As well as Pearcey’s vision for a digital computer, Australians commercialised the ultrasound scanner, CSIRO famously and dramatically improved existing wifi technology, and in the 1950s modernised atomic emissions spec – yeah, I knew I was going to say that one wrong – [Laughter] – spectroscopy. Don’t look at me, Alan. 

Australians developed the bionic ear, as you saw, spray on skin, and the platform that went on to become Google Maps developed in Sydney. When we think about new and advanced technologies, we tend to cast our minds into the future, but today I’d like to remind us of our past. This week we are mourning the loss of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and the in course of doing so reflecting on a close relationship with Australia and Australians. Queen Elizabeth’s second visit to Australia in 1963 was structured to make maximum use of the royal yacht Britannia. Together with his Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, the Queen sailed around much of Australia, enjoying our beautiful coastline. But a mostly seaborne, two-month – two month – itinerary, included a curious inland stopover. 

The official itinerary included stops in Adelaide, Melbourne, Hobart, Sydney, Brisbane. But then all of a sudden, for three whole days, somewhere, the Royal Yacht Britannia could not go was a flight to Cooma in New South Wales, and why Cooma? Because it was there that one of the most ambitious engineering projects the world has ever seen undertaken was occurring, the Snowy Hydro, a 25-year project on which more than 100,000 people worked. It didn’t just transform the Snowy Monaro region, it transformed the nation forever. 

Over the course of a quarter of a century, the scheme created power stations, giant reservoirs and hundreds of kilometres of aqueducts and interconnected tunnels. It moved mountains, closed towns, saw new ones flourish. The Snowy Hydro Scheme is often talked about as a scheme that helped transform Australia into a multicultural country. Through it, Australia welcomed workers from more than 30 different countries into New South Wales and Victorian High Country. My dad was one of them. He moved to Australia from the former Yugoslavia, in particular Bosnia, and worked as a welder in the scheme in the late 60s. 

What people don’t talk about as much anymore is what an engineering feat it was. The building of the Snowy Hydro Scheme, much like the building of one of the first digital computers in the world put us at the forefront of what was possible. In fact, Dr Pearcey’s CSIRAC was put to work in the service of Snowy Hydro, calculating flood models and demolition trajectories. The Snowy Hydro also spurred the creation of yet another purpose built computer, called SNOCOM. Developed at the University of Sydney in 1960, by David Wong and Murray Allen, SNOCOM was the first transistorised computer in Australia and one of the first dozen or so computers in the world. It had just eight kilobytes of RAM, but it was reliable and remained in heavy use until 1967. It now sits in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. I probably shouldn’t say that to a Melbourne crowd! 

From there, Allen worked with others – I wonder what’s going to happen on the weekend. Losing this crowd quick [Laughter]. And I’m done. 

From there, Allen worked with others on a new computer known as CIRRUS. As many of you know, Dr Pearcey took a keen interest in its development and use as a teaching and research computer, but he’d hoped it would go much further as a commercial opportunity. All this in a country that until that time had been an economy based nearly entirely on agriculture. In a decade our country was transformed. The Snowy Hydro has been described as a “monument to political vision, social harmony and engineering excellence”. In 1967, the American Society of Civil Engineers rated it as one of the seven civil engineering wonders of the modern world. 

The Snowy Scheme was the brainchild of the Chifley Government. It was central to Australia’s post-war reconstruction. Tomorrow, September 22, would have been Ben Chifley’s birthday. It’s also the name of the electorate I proudly represent in Sydney. 

At the ceremony to mark the official start of the project, Chifley said, and I quote, or he said he hoped that the scheme would touch the imagination and hearts and enter into the spirit of the people of Australia so that they would give of their best in whatever jobs they were doing. Admiration for the Snowy and what it meant for Australia crossed political divides. It was former Prime Minister Robert Menzies who said, and I quote, “In a period in which we in Australia are still, I think,” listen to the words, “handicapped by parochialism, by a slight distrust of big ideas, and of big people, and of big enterprises, this scheme is teaching us and everyone in Australia to think in a big way, to be thankful for big things, to be proud of big enterprises". There you go, Fran, I quoted a Liberal Prime Minister approvingly. [Laughter.] There’s something in this for everyone. 

The truth is in looking at today’s technology landscape, we’ve not fully overcome our reluctance to think big and drive for what could be we think of the era in which the Snowy was proposed as alien to our own times. But there are still lessons to learn, themes that can be recognised. Few appreciate, for example, at that point the Snowy Hydro scheme was a technological triumph. It was a reward for a nation that dared to have vision. It could not have been possible without experimentation with new technologies. It arose out of a period of global upheaval and geopolitical instability, a moment in which Curtin and Chifley thought deeply about how to rebuild a nation emerging from these global events, most notably the end of World War II. 

Fast forward generations and we are called upon to do the same. To remake our economies and societies as we emerge from a global pandemic, wrestle with the scale of climate change and the rapid and even more accelerating pace of technological change. 

Those of you gathered here tonight have witnessed the profound explosion of new services and businesses, new ways of living, enabled by computing technology and our connection to the web. During the pandemic the importance of digital technology was thrust to the forefront of our minds. Smart phones kept us connected. Computers in the home enables some of us to continue to work remotely. Doctors and clinics opened up new telehealth consultation opportunities. Australian businesses, maker spacers, university workshops started manufacturing their own PPE using 3D printers. Machine learning passing enormous datasets of disease outbreaks helped us model our pandemic responses and test vaccines. They saved lives. Today, we are starting our own post-pandemic reconstruction plan. We face new challenges and tremendous opportunities. 

We are on the precipice of a new and rapid global change, in renewable energy, in technology and all the social changes that they will inevitably bring. Australia can be a bystander to that change or it can be a driver of change. Working with our partners around the world, I want to see Australia once more be seen at the forefront of technological innovation. The task now is to capitalise on that new situation as much as we can, to make sure Australians benefit from home grown ingenuity. 

When Dr Pearcey and his team were building the CSIRAC computer in the late 40s, they faced extreme equipment shortages, the result of World War II, so they constructed many of the components they needed themselves. They taught themselves new engineering techniques. They scrounged for parts. With creativity, good spirits, persistence, they created a digital computer on par with or exceeding the computers being produced by the US and US. These stories are all familiar to us. Australian excellence crafted out of limited opportunity and limited material. 

But I want us to move further. I want us to be able to capitalise on these opportunities to build new industries, new research ecosystems, new national myths for ourselves. Dr Pearcey was vocal in his regret that Australia did not become a manufacturer of computers. It was perhaps a lost opportunity. While Australia achieved much over the decade since Pearcey’s work, he believed we didn’t fully capitalise on that first digital revolution. One thing is certain, we cannot afford to miss the next wave of change that’s coming. 

We need to reinvigorate the faith in Australian ideas from wherever they emerge, from the factory floor, from the lab bench right through to the boardroom. We’ve got to embrace diverse people from a range of backgrounds, foster new skills and professions and kick start new opportunities. We have got to become a nation that will makes things – a nation that does that because it has faith in our own ideas, our know-how, our ability to get the job done. A nation that exports not just raw materials but Australian smarts. And we must build trust in new technologies by ensuring Government and industry act in ways that are worthy of trust. And in fulfilling this mission we must build national security, national prosperity, national cohesion in the same way past great engineering and technological achievements like the Snowy Scheme did all those decades ago. But we must have ambition and faith in our own problem-solving abilities and schemes. Like our fellow countrymen did 80 years ago, we must believe we can do this as a people. So, here’s the test. 

We face a new moment in technological transformation, our own turning point. The Snowy Scheme brought us global recognition; we were considered world leaders in hydro electricity. Similarly, today, we are recognised as world leaders in quantum technology. We have Australia’s first quantum computing company Silicon Quantum Computing and Australia’s first venture capital backed quantum technology company Q CTRL, and more than a dozen research teams and companies. Universities are coordinating through Australian Research Council Centres of Excellence and through Sydney Quantum Academy. 

This year has seen our burgeoning quantum industry establish the Australian Quantum Alliance. Next month, the CSIRO will launch an economic update to its quantum roadmap. The quantum ecosystem in Australia is thriving. Australia accounts for a third of one per cent of the world’s population, but it accounts for 4.2 per cent of global quantum research. Quantum research by Australian researchers is cited 60 per cent more than the global average. We are acknowledged as having some of the best minds in quantum anywhere in the world and I want to ensure that the Australian quantum community is embedded in the global development of quantum technology, that we build a lasting and sustainable research community and support a thriving commercial industry right here in Australia. These goals will be backed by a national quantum strategy that are currently developing, built with wide involvement of those great minds and great companies we have here in Australia. 

Dr Pearcey thought Australia missed an opportunity in Australia to develop a flourishing digital computer industry. I want to make sure we don’t miss our own opportunity in quantum technology. These technologies will transform communications, sensing and computing. They will enable new manufacturing possibilities, new drug treatments, new possibilities in foundational science. And I want the world to be watching us from over there, working with us right here. That is why we are going to deliver Australia’s first national quantum strategy, bringing together our expertise in quantum research commercialisation and the use of quantum technologies to chart Australia’s future. The strategy is being guided by our Chief Scientist Dr Cathy Foley, who herself is a highly regarded expert in quantum research and by an advisory committee with leaders from across the quantum ecosystem as researchers, entrepreneurs and users of quantum technology. The national quantum strategy will be delivered by the end of the year and is underpinned by a $1 billion critical technologies fund as part of the Australian Government’s soon to be established National Reconstruction Fund. 

In her address to the National Press Club recently, Tesla chair, Denholm, noted: there are four areas in which Australian companies have secured a larger share of global venture capital funding than Australia’s 1.6 per cent of global GDP. Lending tech, energy tech, media and design, and quantum technologies. We have a comparative advantage in building and commercialising quantum technology. We need to ensure we embed it, the capability and value here, building the sovereign capability that you spoke about earlier. 

As Minister, it’s not my role to say what we can’t do, but to drive ambition for what we can do together. Dr Pearcey built a computer when computers didn’t exist. The Snowy Scheme thrust us into the global spotlight for engineering achievements. We need to think just as big. 

That scheme could not have been possible, as I said, without experimentation and investment in new technologies, but what’s happened since? We have fallen into thinking of ourselves as takers not makers of technologies. Since ‘95 Australia has been slipping down the ladder in Harvard’s Atlas of Economic Complexity. We were a modest 55 then, now we are ranked 91st in the world. But in this era, one of the similarly sweeping geopolitical shifts and societal upheaval, we, too, will need co investment in transformative technologies. 

We have to reverse that trend. For too long we’ve been going the wrong way. When ideas are ready to be backed, we want to ensure that we are here to back them, hence our $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund to support new and emerging industries. The $1 billion that will be put to growing advanced manufacturing and support businesses innovate, supporting homegrown innovation in areas like artificial intelligence, quantum, robotics, software development, all creating high value jobs across the economy, keeping skilled Australians onshore and luring expertise from overseas. 

And if we are to think big, we need to back our people. We need to back their ideas. We need to back big ideas from a broader range of people. People creating our technologies should reflect the diversity of society in which those technologies will be put to use. When Australia decided to build the Snowy Hydro, we actively recruited people from all corners of the globe, workers from countries like Italy, France, Germany, Scotland, former Yugoslavia, men and women, trained in home countries as electricians, engineers, geologists, and botanists. While many when they arrived started as camp labourers and cooks, their skills were soon discovered, repurposed and put to solving problems associated with the Snowy, and this mix of backgrounds, life experiences and skills saw Australia pioneer a range of ingenious new technologies. 

We need to embrace highly skilled workers wherever they come from to help us thrive in our technology industries and we need to support Australians upskilling and reskilling from all walks of life. Breaking the back of what’s been a decade-long science and tech skill shortage will be tough but necessary to achieve and secure. 

And, again, history tells us things can be different. Women, for example, used to be a much bigger proportion of jobs in computing than they are today. Working alongside Trevor Pearcey on his computer were women like Kay Thorn, who worked across hardware and software components of the machine. Elizabeth Johnson from the University of Sydney programmed the university’s first computer, SILLIAC. Employees of the era were estimated at that time, just a third of the engineers working on SILLIAC were women. A more diverse workforce isn’t just an aspiration, it’s a reconnection with more diverse workforces of our past. 

The recent Jobs and Skills Summit looked at among other things the skill shortages across a variety of sectors including tech. During the summit, there was a clear consensus to promote the importance of STEM education and careers to current and future workforce needs. We have made a commitment to widen the pipeline of talent available to science and technology sectors, including reform to support greater diversity in Australia’s science and tech sectors, means supporting pathways for women, First Nations people, investing heavily to create more university places and TAFE place across the board. 

Of course, you can train as many people as you like and skill them up for the jobs of the future, but it means little if they don’t stay on our shores or return here with new skills gained overseas. We boast so many smart people in this country, people like you all here tonight, but what happens to many of them? They leave. They feel they have got no choice but to go overseas for opportunities and experience they need. 

Working and studying away from Australia is an incredible experience and I know many of you in this room have spent time in other countries with overseas companies, unis, governments. It’s an opportunity to learn, build lasting relationship, experiment with new ideas. But then we need to bring people and those ideas back. I want Australians to feel like their opportunity to flourish, to reach their full potential is here on our shores, not just overseas, and I’m committed to creating the conditions to entice more brilliant Australians to return home. 

The brain drain hurts us in many ways, but it can be turned round. There are eminent Australians in engineering and technology all around us who’ve been overseas and then brought that expertise back home. People like Stela Solar who worked for Microsoft in the US before coming back to head Australia’s National AI Centre. Distinguished Professor Genevieve Bell, Vice-President, senior fellow at Intel Corporation, and who’s now at ANU. Dr Xanthe Croot, a researcher in quantum technologies competed a post doc at Princeton before returning to the University of Sydney to build her own research team. 

We’ve got a big job to do, backed by big ideas, driven by a vision of what the country can do and achieve. We need to call up Australians from all corners of the country and the world. By committing to homegrown innovation and production, we can ensure more smart, skilled Australians stay here and encourage those who’ve left to return and work here. 

Over the years we’ve bemoaned the loss of talent labelled the brain drain. Now we need to let Australians overseas know, let people outside our shores know, we need you. Now is the time for that brain regain. 

When Dr Pearcey created CSIRAC, he couldn’t have imagined the sheer scale of impact computers would have on our lives. While many of these transformations have been positive, some have been harmful. We now wrestle with the impacts of social networks at scale, facilitating new kinds of interference, harassment and abuse, the rise of insecure poorly paid jobs at the edges of automated systems delivering our food, moving packages, driving cars. I’m determined that as we build flourishing technology industries here in this country, it’s not just about getting the biggest bang for your buck or the fastest result, it has to be about what works for our communities. New technologies that promote and safeguard national wellbeing. I want us to lead the world in responsible sustainable technology innovation. While I’ve had – [Applause.] Thank you. 

While I’ve been a longstanding champion of Australian technology and innovation, it’s never been about embracing technology for technology’s sake. It’s not about the tool; it’s about what the tool can do, the possibilities it opens up to us, new discoveries, new services. Dr Pearcey’s faith pushed the limits of what’s possible. In the face of doubt, he had an aspirational vision for computing in Australia and the persistence, the persistence, to bring one of the earliest digital computers into existence. 

When Jordan introduced Jason as tonight’s winner of the 2022 Victorian Entrepreneur of the Year Award, he mentioned the three principles that guide the foundation in choosing recipients of the award: Has the person taken a risk? Is this person making a difference? Is this person an inspiration to others? These are important principles. They shouldn’t be just limited to an awards night; they should level up our national ambition. Those people who act boldly, who are willing to think big, who take risks, can and should become our inspiration. They provide us with the space to be bold ourselves. But modesty, a distaste of ideas, a preference for being doers rather than thinkers, this may have had a place at some past point in time, but they are not our friends today. I would argue that the cringe we experience on this front is something that is dragging down our international measures. 

Trevor Pearcey provides us with a different story about what Australia can achieve and he isn’t the only one. Our history is signposted by moments where we have been regarded around the world for our ideas, innovation, vision and can do attitude. With a big idea like the Snowy Hydro, we became a place that drew people from different corners of the world to help make it a reality. We gave them the courage to think big themselves, to reimagine their own lives and help reshape a nation. This is a moment to rekindle that faith in big ideas. Be steadfast in our courage to bring them into the world. 

I don’t want any of us – any of us – to look back wistfully wondering what new industries we could have created in this country. I don’t mind being called too ambitious in our aspirations for this country. What I would regret is being recalled as someone who thought too small. We are a country that has been transformed by the vastness of our technological and engineering ambitions in the past. We’ve been made a better country for it. We can absolutely do it again. Thank you for the honour of being ...