On July 31st at this year’s Australian Financial Review Innovation Summit, Data61’s CEO, Adrian Turner, delivered a speech on the opportunities for Australian AI. The intent was to explore the way combinations of technologies can lead to benefits greater than the sum of their parts – the rise of ‘combinatorial’ innovation.

“Innovation and breakthrough technologies are often combinatorial. They build on prior cycles. Apple didn’t invent the touch screen or really any of the components, but they put it together in an innovative way and that led to the company going from near death and pundits writing the company off to shooting towards a $1 trillion USD market capitalisation,”

“Why is there so much interest in machine learning and AI? It’s another general purpose technology that has the potential to generate a lot of impact, as the car did in the past. It’s combinatorial because what we’ve got is structured data. We’ve got Amazon Web Services and near infinite computing power on tap. And we’ve got algorithms developed in the 1970s – neural network algorithms – that for the first time have the data required to train them and the computer infrastructure to really crunch through the algorithms”

These changes unique, as the benefits tends to materialise in a way that isn’t immediately obvious. Just as America’s ‘space race’ brought a raft of innovative technologies that weren’t directly related to the functionality of a spacecraft, the development of new industries, as part of the fourth industrial revolution, will lead to a range of new inventions.

The new economies

Much of the unrealised potential for AI lies in the emergence of new economies, parallel and combined slices of existing and new technologies structured in novel ways.

“This is all coming together, and it will have a profound implication. What we’re seeing is new economics emerge through the proliferation of data, computer infrastructure, algorithms, and there’s been a lot of talk about platform players. We have 7 of the top ten by market cap platform companies. The top 5 are worth $3.4 trillion market capitalisation.

This matters because the tech companies that have got a jump on Australia and other parts of the world and are ploughing the money back into R&D. Tim Reed stood up yesterday and told us that  MYOB is increasing R&D investment from 15 to 20 percent. We’ve got the top 5 companies alone investing US $75bn in R&D”

Adrian outlined four areas of expansion in the coming decades:

“We think the opportunity for the country is around what we’re labelling digital + domain. It’s the application of digital and data technologies to the industries that we understand deeply. Digital agriculture, health, energy, minerals and exploration.”

The NewCo opportunity

These are significant shifts, but what are the practical take-aways for new companies? What are the first steps organisations and executives can take in preparing for this new way of doing things?

“If you’re an incumbent company and you’ve identified an opportunity, it’s incredibly difficult to get there because of existing organisational structures, access to capital, talent, market, skills. If you’re a new company (NewCo), it’s getting easier to access the enabling technology to go after that opportunity. In many cases the NewCos are getting there faster. It means that structurally, incumbent companies have to first recognise the opportunity, set up the internal structure to allow a team to form and drive the change through the whole organisation.”

“There are two gains going on in parallel. The ones investing in digital technologies and embracing it that are going to win. At the core of this and underpinning all of this is data competitiveness. This is what we believe is the single most important thing for the country and industry to be focused on right now.”

“If we get really good and really competitive in the global context in the way that we deal with data, we can unlock value in these industries and also capture the value around ML and AI. We can also capture the value around the IoT. This includes things like data capture, data management and data analytics”

What does the future look like?

The future is always informed by the past – it’s always difficult to re-adjust a historical frame to a future situation. “So we think of the car as a horseless carriage. Right now we think about AI and machine learning in the context of enterprise productivity software. Because that’s the frame. We’re not thinking about it in terms of new value creation. What are the things we can do now that weren’t possible? Not just substitutive automation, but complimentary automation?”

With attitude of re-adjustment of framing in mind, Adrian talks about what platforms and industries will look like in the future. “If you think about what Facebook was or is, it’s fundamentally a new type of communications platform. There’s a technological shift going on right now, moving past the centrally vertically integrated platforms to more decentralised federated models. This is an opportunity for Australia.”

“This includes things like supply chain integrity around food provenance. Around 50 per cent of beef products are switched out for counterfeit products on the ground in some other countries in the world. That impacts our brand – brand Australia – and it impacts our ability to command a premium for our exports. We can’t outspend.”

The benefits of this shift isn’t limited to narrow components of technology. “By coming out and saying we’re going to be a leader in the world for autonomous systems, a country gets very good at all the subsystems that then can be applied to every other sector of the economy. Robotics, health, agriculture.” Australia’s moonshot will be far more valuable than we perhaps give it credit for.

Read more about D61+ Live, check out the agenda and register your interest

Adrian's speech will be at 11:30 on day one of D61+ Live, on the 18th of September 2018. With keynote presentations, panel discussions and 50+ projects on display, D61+ LIVE is an opportunity to meet the nation’s best data scientists, engineers and experts on all things data-driven innovation and discuss ideas and solutions face to face.