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By Alison Donnellan 27 November 2019 5 min read

In Kakadu National Park, an invasive weed is choking precious wetlands. Para grass is displacing native plants and reducing habitats for magpie geese, a population considered to be a key indicator of ‘healthy country’ by traditional owners. It’s hard for local park rangers to monitor and manage this weed in this vast landscape – and with limited resources.

However, the introduction of an Artificial Intelligence (AI) tool paired with Indigenous Knowledge is improving adaptive management, and in one wetland, the magpie geese population has increased from 50 to 1800 birds.

There’s plenty of hype around Artificial Intelligence, or AI, both positive and negative. Much of it is warranted – it is a transformative technology that has the power to change life itself, from supercharging economies and accelerating scientific discovery. Some requires more thoughtful consideration – like suggestions it will take our jobs and direct cars to run us down in the street.

AI is expected to be worth $22.17 trillion to the global economy by 2030, and in the past few years, 14 of the world’s advanced economies have announced a total of $86 billion in AI programs and activity. Australia must not be left behind.

Every day we find new ways to apply AI to solve challenges and improve systems, but we must not be dazzled by digital and forget our core business as a nation. We have unique strengths that AI will help us turn into economic benefit on the world stage, but we are also committed to values like equality, justice and transparency that AI is not built to consider.

As AI activity gets underway, we should remember Australia already has world leading and longstanding capabilities in many strategic areas including environmental intervention, water management, robotics, and health and wellbeing – areas where AI can strengthen these uniquely Australian purposes. The key is to start building on our strengths and exporting solutions to the rest of the world.

These are considerations at the heart of the Australian Government’s new AI roadmap[Link will open in a new window]“Artificial Intelligence: Solving problems, growing the economy and improving our quality of life”. The report was developed by Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, and through deep collaboration across industry, government, academia and community organisations who formed the steering committee that guided the research.

It highlights three emerging areas of AI specialisation based on the opportunity to solve significant challenges at home, to export the solutions to the world, and to build on Australia’s existing strengths.

The first is health, particularly healthy ageing and managing disability. For example, we’re already cutting hospital waiting times by predicting patient requirements, as well as significantly speeding up drug development using software. These interventions improve patient outcomes and lower costs, a classic case of science unlocking a seemingly impossible nexus.

The second is cities, towns and infrastructure. As we head into another summer that’s set to break temperature records, AI can combine system prediction with human behaviour prediction to deliver lower power consumption, lower emissions, and lower cost without sacrificing comfort. Again, science solves the seemingly impossible.

The third is our natural resources and environment. AI can be a game changer in environmental management by integrating the many interlinked and complex variables involved. It can reduce the costs and improve the productivity of agriculture, mining, fisheries, forestry – and it can help Indigenous land managers and joint managers manage weeds to increase the population of significant species such as magpie geese in Kakadu.

Today CSIRO announced a program[Link will open in a new window] with Kakadu National Park rangers, Microsoft, Parks Australia and the National Environmental Research Program. Together, we’re weaving AI-driven software with traditional knowledge to solve complex environmental management problems and care for significant species and habitats.

The work uses a combination of Indigenous knowledge, AI, data visualisation and scientific research to label and interpret drone footage, gathered from across the World Heritage-listed national park, providing rangers with immediate management insights.

Indigenous Australians have been managing this landscape for 65,000 years, and the use of AI will support accelerated access to solutions that draw on their invaluable knowledge and expertise to ensure we build resilient and valuable environments. There is simply no substitute to that history, data, and understanding of environment over so many millennia.

We must always carefully consider the impact of technologies like AI on communities and Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property. At every stage, Indigenous collaborators have worked with the research team to ensure Indigenous knowledge is protected appropriately, with three rings of data management and governance: the first one is only accessible to traditional owners and Indigenous elders, the next available to researchers, and the third ring made publicly available as appropriate.

The heart of this AI design solution is the acknowledgement that people come first, and that their expertise is unique. AI can indeed transform the world, but humans must tell it how we want the world to be transformed. This will require due attention to find ways in which AI learning can incorporate local knowledge and emotional intelligence. It will also require the establishment of knowledge sharing and governance protocols to ensure end-users and society have informed consent and consensus as to how, where and for what AI is used for – including the care for significant species and areas on Indigenous lands.

This is at the heart of CSIRO’s commitment to ‘Responsible Innovation[Link will open in a new window]’, which includes a focus on ethical design and application of AI for environmental decision-making. When CSIRO developed the AI Ethics Framework earlier this year, published as a discussion paper by the Australian Government, we highlighted the importance of an ongoing national conversation to ensure everyone has a say about one of the most influential new technologies shaping our nation’s future.

As great a tool as it may be, Artificial Intelligence is no substitute for real intelligence.

Take a gander at this ground-breaking project below:

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