Federal budget unpacks details of the government’s $124 million AI spend

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Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. Source: AAP/Lukas Coch.

The federal budget has offered insight into the government’s $124 million investment into Australia’s artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities, first announced as part of the digital economy strategy last week.

Previously, it had been announced that part of the funding would be pegged to create a National AI Centre, headed up by CSIRO.

Now, we know this initiative will receive $53.8 million over four years, from 2021-22. The national centre, and four AI and Digital Capability Centres, are intended to encourage small and medium-sized businesses to adopt and use AI technologies.

In addition, $33.7 million has been pledged over four years to provide grants to small businesses looking to work with the government to develop AI-based solutions addressing national challenges.

It’s not clear at this time what kind of businesses, and what challenges, will be eligible for the grants, but it’s possible some of this funding may find its way to startups.

The funding also goes some way to addressing the skills gap in this area, with $24.7 million to be spent over a period of six years, to establish a Next Generation AI Graduates Program.

The program will be designed to attract and train AI specialists through scholarships.

Finally, $12 million has been pledged over five years for a co-funded grants scheme, to support projects driven by businesses and community, which build AI capabilities in regional areas.

The digital economy strategy is about “investing in the settings, infrastructure and incentives to grow Australia’s digital economy and ensure businesses across all sectors are able to lift productivity and be globally competitive,” the budget papers read.

In his speech, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg also noted digital infrastructure and skills will be “critical for the competitiveness of our economy”.

AI is one of the areas the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) has been advocating for investment in.

In a statement ahead of the budget, chief executive Ron Gauci welcomed the government’s commitment to AI, but suggested it did not go far enough.

Last month, the AIIA laid out recommendations for a $250 million government investment in AI, to fund a national strategy.

“More needs to be done to ensure that there is significant investment in the commercialisation of AI here in Australia to deliver jobs and economic growth,” he said in a pre-budget statement.

“Without it we will continue to fall behind the rest of the world.”

The AI funding comes as part of a wider push to incentivise digitisation among small businesses, and to build a digitally-literate workforce.

It sits alongside the $12.7 million expansion of the Digital Solutions — Australian Small Business Advisory Service, also announced as part of the digital economy plan, and $15.3 million to drive the uptake of e-invoicing.


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