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Ben Reid

Three priorities to accelerate an AI Strategy for Aotearoa New Zealand in 2019

So it’s February 2019 already.

I have recently been thinking about how Aotearoa’s AI capabilities need to progress faster in the year ahead. 2018 was the year that Kiwis started to wake up to AI and its implications for us as individuals, wider society and the economy. However, levels of AI adoption and investment in New Zealand remain generally low, despite growing pockets of world class innovation.

Here are my top three priorities for accelerating Aotearoa New Zealand’s AI strategy in 2019:

1. WHAT : Clear line-of-sight from New Zealand’s biggest policy challenges to AI solutions

My aspiration for 2019 is that AI starts to figure in mainstream conversations about what kind of future we want for Aotearoa in the face of so much global, technology driven change. The general public and policy makers must have a clear line-of-sight of the potential for using AI and other technologies to help solve New Zealand’s greatest challenges.

Perhaps the biggest difficulty approaching strategic investment in AI is the lack of visibility and understanding of how it can help fix some of New Zealand’s big ticket problems: climate change, stalling economic growth, falling international competitiveness, river pollution, unsustainable agricultural practices, invasive pests, deforestation, traffic congestion and high road deaths, high rates of incarceration, obesity and cancer. There are also housing shortages, infrastructure shortfalls and tourism hotspot overcrowding…

However, not for a single one of these challenges do the New Zealand public or policy makers say, ‘“Aha! Data science, AI and machine learning can help solve that!’ These are the brand new tools in our toolbox – relatively affordable tools, too – so in 2019 I think it’s our job as an AI ecosystem to do a better job of communicating how big data and AI enabled solutions will contribute towards real outcomes. This implies a strong focus on applied AI research and development to address the significant challenges which New Zealand faces to maximize the return on investment for the country.

2. WHEN : An informed sense of urgency to invest now

Last year the AI Forum’s report Shaping a Future New Zealand called for a coordinated New Zealand strategy. Despite then-Minister Clare Curran announcing an AI Action Plan,so far momentum on this has been slower than hoped. Progress needs to be accelerated early in 2019 and outcomes clearly marked for delivery and implementation. The Prime Minister’s announcement last week of the Government’s 2019 Budget priorities – including “supporting a thriving nation in the digital age through innovation” must now be followed up with real investment and action.

To use an analogy: Data and AI are the electricity which will power the forthcoming digital age, but New Zealand needs to invest in the underlying generation, storage and transmission infrastructure to harness the benefits.

There continues to be much chatter about whether US or China would achieve AI Hegemony over the rest of the world. Personally, I think it’s as likely that a multilateral AI environment (albeit heavily skewed towards the major political centres of gravity: US, China and the EU) is emerging. Nonetheless, New Zealand’s fragility as a front line of the looming US/China trade war is a relevant geopolitical concern for our AI sector.

Regardless of the AI Superpowers meme, there is growing evidence of a widening economic gap between early and late movers. Last year’s McKinsey Institute research examining the impact of AI on the global economy ranked a selection of countries into four groups based upon modeling different degrees of AI adoption and absorption, and therefore economic impact. According to McKinsey’s analysis, the economic spoils from AI are likely to go to those countries who adopt early. By implication, this leaves countries who delay investment lagging behind.

3. HOW: A concise, actionable AI strategy for New Zealand

2018 was the year when many of the world’s developed countries published National AI Strategies. Canadian analyst Tim Dutton’s excellent overview of 18 national strategiesidentifies eight areas of public policy where they are intended to have impact:

  • Scientific research
  • Talent development
  • Skills development
  • Industrialization
  • Ethics
  • Data and digital infrastructure
  • Government services
  • Inclusion.

Quite simply, Aotearoa needs a concise and actionable AI strategic plan which prioritises key investments in each of these areas and moves forward rapidly to implementation. In particular we need to strongly focus on where best to spend our limited resources to achieve the optimum results for all of New Zealand.

The AI Forum is able to harness the collective minds of our 120+ members from all across New Zealand’s AI community and can act as an expert independent think tank to contribute towards the development of a national AI strategy – we’re poised to get started today.

Ben Reid I head up the AI Forum of New Zealand - working to harness the power of AI to help bring about a prosperous and inclusive future for New Zealand and the world. The AI Forum NZ brings together technology firms, businesses, universities and the government to connect, promote and advance the national AI ecosystem.