Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Securing Our Digital Future

By Mike Miller

Our digital future depends on preparing industry and society for change.

Today’s digital technologies are having a significant societal and economic impact within Australia. They are also acting as the basis of a newly emerging set of foundational technologies such as the Internet of Things, big data, machine learning and autonomous systems, which will disrupt every aspect of the economy.

This digital transformation presents a range of opportunities and challenges. We must address three key areas to maximise opportunity in Information, Computing and Technology (ICT) development and application and reduce societal impact. Stakeholders across government, industry, academia and the community need to take responsibility for:

  • developing information and communication technologies in Australia;
  • advancing digital transformation for industry and government in Australia; and
  • evaluating the implications of digital transformation on society.

The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) is working to provide guidance to various sectors on the required next steps as Australia’s national capabilities in ICT and digital engineering strive to underpin growth in all Australian industry sectors, including health, agriculture, finance, mining and education.

Australia’s digital future will rely upon a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills base. Critically, education systems must a focus on STEM, and they must evolve to meet the pace of digitalisation.

Digital literacy will be essential to the process of learning, from primary school through to tertiary education. Students must have courses that teach computational thinking (e.g. mathematics and coding) as part of the curriculum, and must be exposed to entrepreneurship throughout their education in order to harness each student’s imagination, enlivening creative responses that align with the dynamic and changing real world environment.

Tertiary institutions must focus on providing the skills to meet the technical and analytical needs created by increasing volumes of data. This should include courses for data scientists and analysts (already in demand) to facilitate effective information management services that ensure the availability, confidentiality and integrity of data.

Courses must also produce graduates with cybersecurity skills that enable them to hit the ground running. Vocational educational systems, with strong alignment with industry and flexible and responsive course design, will be essential in accommodating emerging skills trends.

The successful uptake and effective utilisation of ICT services will continue to facilitate innovation across an increasingly diverse range of areas. Australia’s manufacturing, production and services sectors will increasingly be enabled by access to broadband, both fixed and mobile, as well as low-power network technologies for the Internet of Things (IoT).

The pending boom in the number of sensors collecting huge quantities of data, which in turn must be stored, presents a range of technological opportunities.

ICT has already strongly impacted societal culture and behaviour. People are increasingly moving towards living part of their lives in the digital world, including socialising, learning, conducting financial transactions, and storing and sharing personal data. Emerging technologies will see this evolution continue with a deepening of human–machine partnerships and relinquishing of tasks to autonomous systems.

This level of engagement will also create a societal response as users of technology face issues around:

  • cybersecurity. Secure and large storage systems to accommodate the proliferation of data being collected will continue to increase in demand, with failures around this impacting on advancements and user confidence;
  • ownership of data. Clear ownership to facilitate adequate privacy and control will be central to some consumers and necessary for engagement in new and innovative programs as they emerge;
  • ethics around automation and artificial intelligence (social robotics). As technology advances there may be a lag in response from the general community until broader awareness of potential issues grow. This can result in industries and innovation being stifled or dismantled; and
  • privacy. The community has varying expectations around privacy. Factors related to the IoT and home safety may present issues for the development and uptake of IoT products.

Australia must address these matters at the forefront of technology development – with appropriate regulatory frameworks – before they become issues rather than responding to poor outcomes after they have become issues.

Professor Mike Miller AO FTSE and Professor Glenn Wightwick FTSE co-chair ATSE’s Digital Futures Working Group.