Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC RN Breakfast

Patricia Karvelas
AI, satellite program, NSW ICAC findings

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Now, there's been some developments this week, most states now, you'll see some story in the news about AI being used for health, for building approvals or how it's going to take over your job, and your life, imminently, in the next five years. It's moving at a pretty incredible pace, and legislators here and overseas are really struggling, I think, to keep up, to keep up with where the laws need to be to match the technology. Privacy, copyright, cyber laws, do apply to AI, but critics say there are major and significant gaps that need to be addressed by governments. 

Ed Husic is the Minister for Industry and Science, and he joins me now. Ed Husic, welcome back to the program. 


PATRICIA KARVELAS: Always lovely to have you on, Ed Husic. The EU recently passed its first draft legislation on AI. One of its most significant reforms is a push to ban facial recognition in public places. Is that something we should pursue here? 

ED HUSIC: I think in terms of some of the comments that you just made leading into our chat, we do need, Governments do absolutely need to work harder to keep pace with the way the technology's going, and we, certainly as a government here in Australia, are determined to make sure we've got modern laws for modern tech. 

That's why we've opened up the consultation on safe and responsible AI, and people have got a chance to put forward their views, and there will be people that will look at other jurisdictions, just like the EU, where, you've just referenced what they're doing on facial recognition, and they may well put those contributions forward. I'm not necessarily at this point going to say we're definitely going to do this, or do that, because it really doesn't give good faith to the consultation process. What we want to do is work across Government, because there are about 12 dozen or so laws that currently have to deal with these types of things, and we need to refresh and modernise them. So we'll take the time to take on board people's views. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. Yeah, of course, no one would want you to rush to judgment. But obviously this is a pretty immediate problem facing everyone, and it's vexed, and people are really worried. Recently you met with Sam Altman, who is the founder of OpenAI, which owns ChatGPT. Tell us about that conversation. And what was your message to him? 

ED HUSIC: Well, the big thing I'd indicated to him is that we obviously, like a lot of other governments, we're looking at what we've got to do to keep pace with those changes in AI that people are seeing, and particularly through one of the big products that OpenAI have put forward with ChatGPT, and the release that they put out in November really made people sit up and take notice about how much power there was now in generative AI. He agrees that governments need to work, and they're prepared to work with us on that. He also accepted an idea that I put forward that I wanted our scientists and researchers to better understand their models, the way that they're putting forward the various versions of ChatGPT or generating generations of ChatGPT, which he's agreed, so it builds an understanding for us about how they're approaching things, and I think that's a good sign that businesses are prepared in the tech space to do that. So I thought that was really important. 

He also put forward, Patricia, an idea that he's been sort of very focussed on, creating in effect a global regulator, and we'll take that on board. I think the big thing is that different jurisdictions, you mentioned a few moments ago about the EU, if you go to different parts of the world, different governments take different views. If we can get agreement, that's great, but I think the expectation in the Australian context is people want to know that the technology doesn't get ahead of itself, but that we get the most out of it for good, and that anything that we're concerned about is dealt with. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: There's still a month before the discussion paper closes, and you still have no timeline on when the Government might introduce legislation on this. 

ED HUSIC: M'hmm. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Should we be moving faster? Is that fast enough? 

ED HUSIC: Oh, I think we always want to be able to move as quickly as we can, but given it's touching a number of areas, and there will be things that we need to consider about how we respond in different, like, and for example, you mentioned facial recognition earlier, people would be concerned about how they're tracked in the public space, but people also get facial recognition is really important from a security and safety point of view too. They want to get the balance right. That's the whole thing about technology, is getting a sense of, well, if you're using it, please make sure you're using it in a right way. 

So for us, what we sort of flagged in the consultation paper is, to get that balance right, is let's grade the way that we respond. So low-risk, medium-risk, high-risk, is one of the things we're putting forward as a way to deal with this, a risk based framework, and then attaching to that things that will increase the level of response from government if things aren't going in the way that we as a community expect. 

So you can get from that, and we're trying to, what we are also very keen for us to do as a government is ensure that, if we've got a framework that can move rapidly, so to the very start, your points that you've raised with us about getting government to move quicker on this, absolutely on board with that, and if we can set up a way that we can do that, that's one of the things we want to explore. But that won't necessarily just pop out of a vending machine, it would be great to be able to have those answers, or out of ChatGPT, if you don't mind me saying, I think we're just going to have to work that stuff through, and that's what Governments are expected to do. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Yeah. Probably don't say to your ChatGPT. What is the legislative solution to –   

ED HUSIC: Yes, yes. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS:  Yep, nah, don't do that. There are also calls – 

ED HUSIC: I was up in The Hunter yesterday in Newcastle at a forum talking about this, and the person who was questioning me from Business Hunter actually used ChatGPT to frame one of the questions. So I said, "Well, okay, next time I'm getting ChatGPT to frame the response." 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Yeah, no, alarming. There are also calls for the creation of an AI Safety Commissioner, the Human Rights Commission has previously recommended that to provide expertise and help build trust in the safe use of AI, that could be done any day. Are you considering that, an AI Safety Commissioner? 

ED HUSIC: So I maintain focus on what I said a few moments ago, which is we'll let the consultations run and we'll see what people say, and I don't want to make a sort of prejudged position. But my – I sort of have this philosophical view, there's always a problem in the public space, and I don't see that every time there is something, or some issue or challenge, that the first response is to set up a new agency or government body. 

I know that sometimes that gives people the irrits, when I take that point, but the reason I say this, because I actually think this approach, this skill set, this mindset about how we deal with AI needs to be embedded across government, because you've already got a stack of laws that anticipate the interaction of AI, human behaviour and outcome, right? So instead of just creating one body that we just elbow everyone's   any issue you've got, just elbow it straight to them   we need to lift capability across government to deal with this. 

And there are a number of my colleagues that are looking at this quite actively, from Clare O'Neil, in terms of cyber, from Mark Dreyfus as the Attorney-General on privacy issues and data use, Michelle Rowland, Communications Minister on disinformation, and that's, I think, a really strong way for it to be able to deal with these issues, but again, let's go through the consultation process, see what's said, and make a call down the track. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: I just want to stay on your portfolio, but another area if we can. Yesterday you announced the government was axing the billion-dollar satellite program announced during the Morrison government. You said you still want Australian to have sovereign space capability, but we're going to be relying on international partners now. That's a big call to axe it. Why have you made that decision? 

ED HUSIC: It would be great as an industry minister to always be making announcement about billion dollar spends as opposed to making billion-dollar cuts, but we sort of confronted – I just want to answer your question two ways: one is, we're in really tough economic circumstances. I've taken the view as Industry Minister getting some of the other background or broader environmental things right, really important, that's why when we've previously chatted, I've made a thing about getting supply chains working again, bringing down energy prices is really important for manufacturers and industry, getting skills in place to deal with skill shortages. These have been really big things. And part of that too, Patricia, has been about the budget, and the contribution we can make in terms of putting downward pressure on inflation and interest rates, and Government spendings had to be reined in. 

That sometimes involves us making tough calls like we did on the space program. And so the reason why in terms of that program, like if I don't cut a billion there, I've got to find it somewhere else in the portfolio, is the Morrison government announced this at the tail end of their government. I mean if they were really committed to it, they would have done it sooner. There are other ways we can build capability; we're certainly interested in doing that. We just have to make the call on this –    

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Sure. You say they would have done it earlier. Let's just park their motives. 

ED HUSIC: Sure. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: We're talking about your decision. 


PATRICIA KARVELAS: Obviously a sovereign capability is quite key, given this technology isn't just about space, it really opens all sorts of doors. Aren't you closing them? 

ED HUSIC: No, I think – okay, so a number of things. This was about a national space mission on Earth's observation. The space sector, itself, is very diverse, it's working on a whole range of things. Earth observation is one, satellites is part of that, obviously for many, they'll be upset that they don't get the chance to work on that, but there are a whole lot of other things that people are helping out on, particularly, for example, most notably in terms of communications equipment, it's probably the big, heavy lifter within the sector. 

I mean that, in terms of a private capacity, that has been building up itself for quite some time, and we want to support that. We've put the Australian Space Agency on sustainable footing, we've opened up the National Reconstruction Fund to support firms, and we've also got our industry growth program we announced in the budget to help smaller firms be able to get a leg up in terms of their ideas, to stand themselves up at that early stage. So there are a number of things we can and are doing, but you've got to make those calls, and I know that it's not popular, but we're trying to do it at a point where we can bring that budget deficit down and invest in the things that expect – people want in terms of cost of living support, and also work with industry longer term for jobs now and into the future. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: This morning, Matt Kean, former NSW Treasurer has spoken, and he's been really critical of the ICAC's findings in relation to Gladys Berejiklian. He says it's the first corruption inquiry where someone's been labelled seriously corrupt, not just corrupt, but not corrupt enough to be referred to the DPP, that's the Director of Public Prosecutions, for criminal charges, and Peter Dutton has also been really critical this morning, reportedly in relation to this. Did ICAC go too far on Gladys Berejiklian? 

ED HUSIC: As a Federal MP, I think, and looking at state law and the way that ICAC – I don't profess to have the expert knowledge to make that call about how ICAC has conducted itself. I think, clearly there were a number of concerns that were raised through that process, strong enough for then Premier Berejiklian to make a call to resign for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which, it was a pretty big investigation into concerns around people using their position to be able to get something that most other people in the public couldn't get, in terms of influences of decision making. So I think the investigation itself was very serious. People will have their views about how ICAC has done their work, and I'm not a legal expert to be able to talk on it. 

I have my criticisms of the Berejiklian government, in particular the way the Premier managed things through the course of their administration, but I'm not going to pretend to be able to give you a detailed legal response, and in particular to some of the things that people have said. Peter Dutton can wade into it, as he has, but he should know that at the federal level, we're very committed to restoring integrity, that's why we pushed for a national – you know, in terms of the national Integrity Commission, and you know, I think he needs to focus on whatever he can do to restore faith in that, and criticising courts in that way, I'd be careful about doing that. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Thank you so much. 

ED HUSIC: Okay, thank you. 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: And that is the Minister for Industry and Science, Ed Husic. You're listening to ABC RN Breakfast.