Press conference - CSIRO and National Science Foundation joint AI funding announcement

Artificial intelligence; technology and future economic growth; National Reconstruction Fund.

DR. LARRY MARSHALL: Can I begin formally by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the lands that we're on here today, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present, and just remind ourselves that the most important thing all of us do each day is take better care of our lands and our people, because without them, you know, the future isn't very bright at all. But with them, and with the amazing science that your National Science Agency, the CSIRO, creates every day, the future just keeps looking better and better. 

So we're here today to talk about the brand-new partnership between the National Science Foundation in the United States and your National Science Agency, the CSIRO. 

Now, Panch and I have been mates for many years, but this is really the first time we've formalised a partnership between the two countries to tackle some of the most important challenges that we face as a nation using cutting edge technology, like artificial intelligence. 

But to tell you more about that, I hand over to my wonderful Minister, the Honourable Ed Husic. 

ED HUSIC, MINISTER FOR INDUSTRY AND SCIENCE: Thanks, Larry, and it is terrific to be here today, both with Larry and also Sethuraman Panchanathan, or Panch, as he's known, and the National Science Foundation, who I got to catch up with just a few weeks ago to talk about the ways in which both Australia and the US can cooperate together, making a difference in people's lives, the quality of lives, not just economic security, but the quality of life as well, by getting some of our smartest people in our respective countries, thinking about how we can work together to improve national wellbeing, and I'm particularly delighted to be here, at the moment where our two major science agencies in CSIRO, National Science Foundation, are working together with university researchers in the US and here in Australia to basically invest money with those universities to think through some of our national challenges, and again improve quality of life, they're from pandemic response, droughts and also a broader climate change and emissions reduction as well. 

What we'll see through the work between the CSIRO and the National Science Foundation is roughly 2 million from either agency, being directed to universities here and over in the US, and in the Australian context, in the University of New South Wales, RMIT, UTS, and the Uni of Melbourne, for example, will all work with US universities on some big challenges, some big issues to improve the quality of life. 

There is a bigger issue, and that is we do need at this point in time to think about how technology can also guide future economic growth. It's really important for our businesses and our unis in the broader community, while there will be people from time to time that wonder about the impact of telling, we need to deal with concerns around technology, but we also need to make sure we're using technology in a way that's making a difference in people's lives, improving the longer term running of the economy. 

It's why, for example, we're working very hard, the Australian Government, in setting up the National Reconstruction Fund, $15 billion of capital that will sit to be able to support Australian businesses to stay onshore and to develop what they're working on right here, and potentially work with other countries too. 

But this is about jobs, it's about economic growth, it's about regional opportunities, and it's about also scaling up our technology, particularly critical technologies, and the $1 billion sub fund out of the National Reconstruction Fund thinking about what we're talking about here, the use of artificial intelligence, being able to build up strong businesses that are applying AI in really good ways, and also quantum technologies as well, which may not be on the tips of everyone's tongues in the community, but Australia is actually leading in some of these technologies; in quantum technologies. 

We recognise for some of our talent world over, and we want to deal with that thing that a lot of Australians can't stand, which is why is it that firms that had a great idea had to leave our shores to get the money to help them grow?  We want to make sure we manufacture here; Australia should be a country that makes things, technology is a big driver of that, manufacturing is one of the biggest users of R and D support in the country, and being able to take it back and look at the way our science agencies from either side of the Pacific work together to give a further platform for the application of know how in the US or here in Australia, and importantly, within our region, and ASEAN is really important, so Panch, it's great, it's always great to be able to see you, and it is always great to be able to welcome you when especially you're prepared to invest money with us on things that matter to both our countries. So over to you, my friend.

DR. SETHURAMAN PANCHANATHAN: Thank you, thank you so much, Minister. It's truly a pleasure to be here, I mean it's a delight, I would say; meeting the Minister just a few weeks ago back in Washington, where we were talking about this unbelievable platform that we have between our two great nations, the platform of shared values and shared aspirations, and when you bring that together, you can do amazing things, and working with my dear friend and colleague, Larry Marshall here, whom we met several years ago, but last year, just a year ago, we signed that MOU between CSIRO and National Science Foundation. 

But then he said that it is not just about a piece of paper, signing something, that's important, but actually actualising that into projects that we can work together on, bringing unbelievable expertise and talent across the two nations together. And I’m so delighted and thrilled today that we have these amazing investments around the AI for societal good. 

If you look at the projects that we're funding, the three projects in this packet of AI for social good, I will tell you, when we announced this joint funding opportunity there were 45 proposals. What that tells us is the vibrancy of the teams coming together and wanting to work together solving societal problems, like the pandemic resilience, or the disaster resilience, or environmental challenges; that they all want to work together to really find common solutions that can impact us in terms of societal, as well as the derivative economic impact in terms of what it can do to building industries of the future, the jobs of the future, and that's what this is about, it's about prosperity in all ways that you can think about. 

We also, just in the last one year, in December we announced this jointness, again, two projects, three universities in Australia participating with entities in the United States in terms of convergence, which again focussed on societal good projects. 

Let me give you an example. There's a project of how you take plastic waste and actually use that for products that can be recreated from the plastic waste, so we can have the circular economy that we talk about become much more real, and how can we get to the objectives of net zero emissions, things of that nature that we talk about, but actualising them to these amazing projects that we work together on. 

And now we're talking about, just a week ago, announcing a global centre that we can work together on our climate change and clean energy. This is building adaptive resilient, of course, mitigation, solutions for ensuring that again they're making sure that as Planet Earth, we are all taking responsibility for ensuring that they're all building a great future. 

But guess what?  When you do that, you're not only building for our citizens in both countries and beyond, but actually creating the industries for the futures around them. Again, more job opportunities, more economic outcomes that can happen. 

So the National Science Foundation, which is a $10 billion agency, invests in these kinds of curiosity driven research ideas, basic research ideas, but also in use inspired research ideas, solutions focussed research ideas. How do we make sure that innovation is everywhere across the nation, but through that, that they're opening up opportunities for everyone across our nation, and that's the value that Mr Husic talked about, that's exactly what Australia is trying to do, is to make sure that prosperity is guaranteed everywhere. 

And so we work with the CSIRO and NSF this is a platform for governing the benefits, so I hope that that gives you a glimpse of how we're working together. I know sometimes I may lack in energy, so you have to forgive me for that. 

LARRY MARSHALL: Now let's get on with delivery but bring it in big guy. Very good.

JOURNALIST: Tell us a bit more about climate change specifically, things like decarbonisation is also being looked at. Where is such some of this research going potentially?  

SETHURAMAN PANCHANATHAN: So in all aspects, as I said, we talk about climate, I call it the smart way of addressing climate. The science and technology of the two ends, book ends, S and T, and in between, we are building all kind of approaches to understanding climate change, but more importantly the A, adapting, R, resilient, and first, and M, the mitigation, so smart science, for mitigation, adaptation, resilience and then having building technologies around that, so that's a smart way of addressing client. 

LARRY MARSHALL: You're not quizzing us. We don't have to remember that. 

JOURNALIST: And funnily enough- the AI projects, and some of those are addressing how AI thinks in a way. Talk us through about why that's important. 

SETHURAMAN PANCHANATHAN: See, it's very, very important to understand that this AI project that we've worked directly on is about responsible and ethical AI. Let's be very clear about this, because for far too long, technology for technology's sake alone does not necessarily guarantee delivery of benefits to people, and even more importantly, in the case of AI, it's our trustworthiness. If we want people to trust technology, and they will use technology to the fullest extent, we need to build the trust by ensuring that we're building technologies with the mindset of shared values, making sure that ethical principles are used, making sure that things are transparent, making sure that there are no inherent biases that is built in the technology, either inadvertently or intentionally. We have to make sure that we combat all of these challenges so that AI actually can deliver the public good mission in its fullest form. And so that's what we're working on here, is a very specific slither of making sure that that trustworthy AI is something that we work together on, because we both know that without that we cannot have AI deliver, benefits delivered in the broadest form. 

So if you look at the projects that we are funding, you will find the common theme that is there. 

LARRY MARSHALL: You may not know it, but Australia was one of the first countries in the world along with the US to actually build proper responsible and ethical AI framework, which we've stuck to from Day 1. It's so important to start there, because you can't engineer in ethics the child's been born, you've got to teach them as they go. 

SETHURAMAN PANCHANATHAN: Exactly. That's a very good point. You have to understand that this is why, when we talk about development of technologies, you always want to have social behavioural, economic, humanist, and a whole host of other - artists, everybody coming together, that that's how you build real solutions. So, technology is, this is not afterthoughts, these are actually how you cook the meal before you delivery the meal. 

JOURNALIST: Just on the partnership specifically, maybe for you, Larry, why specifically have we partnered with the United States and what are the benefits specifically with that?  

LARRY MARSHALL: So the US is, and has been for at least 50 years CSIRO's largest research partner, also Australia's biggest trading partner, and obviously we have very, very strong common values, a lot of alignment there, so it was kind of an obvious choice. It wasn't just the fact that Panch and I are mates, although that didn't hurt, but it's really the shared values and the shared objective of the program, which is to tackle some of the world's toughest problems. 

When you think about a machine partnering with a human mind, if you can get the best of both, and that's the whole core of ethical AI, it's not letting the machine run amok and do it on its own, it's a collaboration between machines and humans, you get better, you get something better than either one of them could have done alone. 

JOURNALIST: And just for context, what other partnerships do the CSIRO have?  

LARRY MARSHALL: So we have a lot of partnerships around the world, and particularly during COVID, we talked to every country that was willing to talk and share information so we could better navigate the crisis. That's a great lesson. You know, the world   Australia came out of COVID in an incredibly strong position, but only because we listened to the rest of the world and learned from what they were doing. We didn't copy them; Australia chose its own path driven by science, but we used the data that all of those countries shared with us and we with them to help us navigate. I think that's a lesson for the future. The more we can do that, let the language of science keep us together, because we have common problems to solve, I think the world will be a better place, probably a more peaceful place if we can keep talking through the language of science. 

JOURNALIST: And just on the partnerships as well, do we have any other scientific partnerships say with non Anglo communities as well; are there talks about it in the future, and specifically if there is, can you explain what they are. 

LARRY MARSHALL: So Australia was the first western country to formally recognise the Chinese Academy of Science, and we did that, I think under the Hawke Government actually. CSIRO's second oldest partnership is with the Chinese Academy, it's 55 years, I think, and that's another example of transcending politics to talk about the science. It really is a common language. It doesn't matter what actual spoken language we speak, the language of mathematics and science is a common language that unites scientists together around the world. 

ED HUSIC: So on becoming Minister for Industry and Science, one of the things that I looked at was some of the initiatives around global science diplomacy, and I'm currently reviewing the outlook of the way in which that's structured. My big motivation is for us to build stronger links locally, that we're working, we get some of our smart people from all the countries in the regional neighbourhood working together on common problems. 

I think that when it comes to innovation, it shouldn't just be about making a buck, but making a difference, and working on some issues, for example, around healthcare, and improving the reduction of the number of cases of disease that might occur, that if we get people working together to make a big difference is really important. 

For example, our work between Monash University and Indonesian researchers has helped reduce massively in Jakarta, mosquito-borne diseases. That makes a big difference in people's lives. And so what I want to do is make sure that within the Asia Pacific region that we do get people in the countries working together. We'll be making other announcements as well about greater effort in that regard, not just in terms of the review of the global science diplomacy measures that we've got, but some other measures that we funded out of the Federal Budget, and we'll be making further announcements about down the track. But it is really important, particularly ASEAN, 600 million people, and in the Pacific, with the challenges that are there, we've both got shared challenges we can work on really well together. 

JOURNALIST: AI has obviously got a lot of- just recently with questions about it. Why is responsible and ethical AI important?  

ED HUSIC: Again, I think that technology shouldn't just be about making a buck, it should be improving the quality of people's lives, and what we're talking about here is using that huge power of AI to crunch through data that would take people ages to go through and to make inroads on. We've seen when AI's been used in particular ways to come up with new antibiotics and to improve the quality of people's health. What we want to see, especially with what we're announcing today is how do we improve or protect ourselves from future pandemics and improve our response. How do we take the edge off drought, and be able to use resources in a much smarter way?  

How can we cut emissions, increase jobs and deal with one of the biggest challenges facing the planet? AI can churn through those datasets phenomenally, and it's really important that we get people on either side of the Pacific to work jointly on that, because there's massive benefit. 

And the other thing in terms of quantum computing longer term, quantum computing and what it can do to processing power when paired with AI is beyond our imagination right now, but it can open up the discovery of new medicines, it can open up ways to improve the production of food on a planet where the climate is changing, and create new ways of delivering protein, for example, for countries, particularly developing countries. 

So for us, getting it right on AI and investing in the development of quantum and pairing that together and seeing the way that that transforms societies, improves the quality of life, that is a big priority for us as a Government, but also for the Biden Administration as well through the National Science Foundation, it's why we've teamed up with them, but we want to team up with others that have got a similar view. 

JOURNALIST: This is a big part of the challenge given you have corporations like Microsoft or apps, or Google's obviously pushing ahead with AI, but there's organisations like the CSIRO and the NSF is also doing it. It's important to have that balance that there are Government organisations doing it as well as the corporate. 

ED HUSIC: Yeah, I think so. And I think having particular universities, educational institutions, thinking about the way technology is used in a community is really important. 

To give you an example, I'm developing the process, I've got a bunch of great people working on the development of a National Robotic Strategy, but in there it's not just all the people that are thinking of the technology, we've got people who are looking at it from a community perspective; we've got people looking at it from a workforce perspective, so that early on, and similar to what Larry was saying earlier around AI, it's very hard when you get well advanced to inject the ethics in, so it's the responsibility of Governments to think this stuff through, and to guide business and people from educational institutions, and the broader community, to get the best possible effort. 

It's not about just improving the profit of a company, it's about saying, well, how's this actually improved the way we live? And technology has done that for ages, and we always had a concern from the very get go about the impact of technology on the way we work and the way we live our lives, but it's really the pressure, having said that the pressure is on Governments to say, well, have you actually learnt anything new you're designing things early enough so that we don't have to cobble together a summons when it gets a bit too late. 

SETHURAMAN PANCHANATHAN: If I can add to what the Minister said, in these things you have to partner with industry. Let me give you an example. On the Trustworthy AI project, it's a joint project of Amazon and us co investing together. We have many projects around that. You want to work with industry, because that's how you bring solutions to the table, and not treat it as, this versus that, so that's something that we bring to the table, and I'm very delighted by CSIRO's approach, also becomes a partner with industry, and industry’s a huge fan of partnering with industry and we talked about exactly that he is doing in Australia. So I want to resonate with what you said, Minister. The Biden Administration, and full bipartisan support of our Congress. When we look at the industry it's an exciting future for the United States. There is complete convergence on all sides in the United States to ensure that this is the moment, this is the moment that we need to double down, triple down, quadruple down, our investment so that science and technology, of course rightly constructed through responsible and ethical ways of moving things forward, can actually deliver real solutions for societal problems as I said earlier, but also vibrant economies of the future. 

JOURNALIST: Minister, just on the NRF, could you give us an update on how the negotiations went last week with the Greens and the crossbench?  

ED HUSIC: Sure. 

JOURNALIST: And then the second part of that question is you're facing competition overseas from allies like the Biden Administration which has much bigger funding in their equivalent programs, so what can Australian companies - what are you offering Australian companies to stay here and not go and take some things like overseas investment?  

ED HUSIC: Well, two things. I think the National Reconstruction Fund, gives us a chance, not just to learn lessons from the pandemic and deal with supply chains and tackle inflation in the process, but it's about investing having our know how applied in a way to create longer term economic growth, and for all of us to be part of that project. It's a National Reconstruction Fund. 

We want people from all corners of the Parliament to be able to have a sense of ownership about the fund, and that's why I'm staggered that the Coalition out of the blue decided to vote against it. They dealt themselves out, but in the interim, I've worked with and sat with crossbenchers in the Lower House, it's not just about the Government getting the numbers and just ramming stuff through; as I said, it's a collaborative working group with people approached to get onboard with ideas and viewpoints about how we can improve things, and talking with the Greens as well. It's just the patient work of going through from different viewpoints. The Parliament's not - all those people that are elected in there don't all think as one, and the good thing is you do get different viewpoints that can kick the tyres a bit on ideas, and improve things, and we certainly welcome that approach. 

So my view is we're making, I think, patient progress, working through issues, and I'm quietly confident that we'll get there in the end, because people know, particularly the crossbenchers and the Greens recognise this as a moment to create a nation-building piece of work that can support long-term growth and also community wellbeing. So we'll see how it goes, and I don't like conducting public negotiations, and I'm not interested in forcing people's hands. We'll work through it. 

On your point around what the US and the Biden Administration is doing, I'd actually urge people to flip their viewpoint about it. This is actually a great opportunity for both countries to work together. The conversations that I had with Panch last week, and also - the other week, I should say - gees, it's all flying    

SETHURAMAN PANCHANATHAN: When you're having fun. 

ED HUSIC: That's right. And the Secretary of Commerce, Gina Raimondo, really good conversations about how we can work together. I think our friends in the US know, and they don't intend to do everything themselves, but they do want to scale up manufacturing, just like what we want to do onshore, because we recognise, we're very - we're dependent on concentrated or broken supply chains, we can do more in our respective countries. 

We are talking about working together, and the other point I emphasise to our friends in the US is to involve the region too. There's a lot of enthusiasm to see what we can do about, manufacturing our own solar panels, make our own batteries and recycling and re using, and think ahead around circular economy issues as well. There are great avenues for us to work together. 

So from my perspective, I think we can team up really effectively with what they've done with the Inflation Reduction Act, what we're doing with the National Reconstruction Fund, and other things, because bear in mind we've got rewiring the nation, powering the regions, there's a whole host of offshore wind development as well that's going to open up manufacturing opportunity, and that's not just about the hardware, there's a lot of software that's involved as well, as you could appreciate. 

We've launched the consultation around the National Battery Strategy, looking at different parts of the value chain. If we mine so much of the critical minerals that the world is using for batteries, we've got a great opportunity. I often say, if we mine it here, we should make it here. And so that's what we're looking at with batteries, and we're doing that work as well. 

So there is a lot that we can team up on, and the great thing about the US and the conversations with them is they're very eager to work with people, not just ourselves, but they also respect that we've got a very big focus on the regional neighbourhood, which is what I was reflecting on earlier, and we can really, if we team up, we can get a lot of great things done, but it is going to take a lot of work on I'm not just talking about cooperation, but actually breathing life into it and seeing the concrete results of that cooperation too. 

JOURNALIST: And just on the Greens, I understand it's an offer, not an ultimatum about fossil fuel projects in the NRF. Is that off the table for you; did you consider that?  

ED HUSIC: I keep emphasising to representatives of the Greens that the NRF, one of the biggest sub funds we've got in the National Reconstruction Fund is around emissions reduction, low emissions technology manufacture. 

A lot of that was factored in to our emissions targets, not just for 2030, but getting net zero. We can't have the NRF do things that run counter to our determination to reach our emissions reduction targets, and so some of the things that are being raised, I just don't see as necessarily flying under a National Reconstruction Fund arrangement; it's just counter to the philosophy that the Prime Minister thought about when we announced the Reconstruction Fund last year. 

So we're just working through that, but again, what we're talking about is scaling up manufacturing capabilities. This is the largest investment in Australian manufacturing in living memory, and it's also driven with a purpose. In this case, emissions down, jobs up. It's a good thing to push for. 

JOURNALIST: Just finally, are you open to putting it in a legislation like the CEFC where it can only invest in clean energy technologies; would you be willing to legislate to rule out possible    

ED HUSIC: Look, we've listened to the recommendation, we're thinking that through. There are some challenges in doing that with the National Reconstruction Fund as opposed to what you do with the Clean Energy Financing Corporation, because CEFC's got a very dedicated focus, and it would be inconceivable to do what some in the Coalition wanted to do last time, to encourage them in investing in activities that would increase emissions and reduce our ability to cut emissions in the way that we wanted and the timeframes we were working to. 

So we're taking that on board, we're working through it. There are some challenges in terms of what they're putting forward, but I don't want to rule stuff in or out. I'm approaching this genuinely in the spirit of collaboration and want to be able to work that through, because frankly, that's what people voted for in May last year. They want the Parliament to stop the bickering and all the fighting, and they do want us to focus on reducing emissions, they do want us to focus on increasing jobs, because there is a huge jobs opportunity. We've just got to get on with it, but not in the way that we've seen for ages, where it seemed like there was a bigger rush to picking a fight than working out a solution. 

JOURNALIST: Larry, can I just ask about the demonstration we saw a bit earlier here. If you could speak to that, an example, I guess of AI at work in terms of the CSIRO's work. 

LARRY MARSHALL: Yes, you saw the challenge results where we invented an imaging system and a robot that could go into an unknown environment like a mine site after it had collapsed and rescue humans. That's using artificial intelligence, if you like, to be the brains of the robot, so that's an example. 

And just to your earlier question about, you know, this notion of the US is so much bigger, how can we possibly, you know, not compete, but contribute?  When we put our minds to it, we do amazing things, like inventing Wi Fi. When we put our minds to it, we invent amazing things like the liquid renewable fuel that we created from hydrogen to replace the exports of coal and natural gas. We think there could be a $50 billion hydrogen industry in this country. It wouldn't have happened if we didn't have that amazing history as a country of mining minerals and figuring out how to transport them to the rest of the world, because we're far away. But we solved those problems because we had to. 

So I think the Minister's point is, and particularly for the NRF, if we choose to focus on the right things and the Minister has in the process of setting a series of national priorities, where we can focus, where Australia really can punch above our weight, where we can contribute with our allies together, we can really deliver amazing things. The CHIPS Act, for example, is a fantastic opportunity. US is going to bring back the centre of gravity of sending conductors to America, that's great, but Australia has some incredible material science capabilities, some incredible manufacturing capability. We can part of that global supply chain. And I don't want to give away what Panch might announce next, not this week, but maybe next week, looking at those opportunities to try and figure out a really focussed way where Australian science and technology can contribute on the world stage. 

SETHURAMAN PANCHANATHAN: I just want to explain a little bit on this, what Larry said, in fact. There's so much complementarity, so much overlap, of course which talk about overlaps, but we talk about the complementary interests and complementary expertise. That's what these global collaborations do, is they bring these unbelievable complimentary together, to solve problems in a comprehensive, sustainable, long term way. That's what this is about. I mean you take quantum. The Minister talked about quantum. He's absolutely right. It's a very exciting technology. But if you look at the multiple contribution factors, whether it is, you know, the materials, the underlying materials, the devices, the architectures, the computation, the networking, the communication, there's so many pieces to this, and there's so many, you know, expertise domains that are all over the globe. When we work together we can really develop the outcomes at speed and scale. I always say, how do you strengthen at speed and scale? By hyper partnering. That's what this is about, we're hyper partnering together to deliver at speed and scale for both our nations and our citizens. 

ED HUSIC: Thanks everyone.