Key AI issues and trends: CSIRO

Australia’s national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), has recorded an unprecedented increase in the uptake of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies among the world’s scientists, as AI’s role in scientific discovery continues to grow.

The CSIRO report, Artificial intelligence for science, confirmed that AI was no longer the domain of computer scientists, and is today a “significant enabling force” across all fields of science. Digital technologies that encompass AI, the research agency added, have accelerated the pace and scale across different CSIRO research fields, ranging from agriculture to energy and manufacturing.

Additionally, the report found that the increasing uptake of AI by scientists was accompanied by a global rise in public and private sector research and development (R&D) investment, with more than 700 AI policy and strategy initiatives developed across 60 international jurisdictions since 2017.

“To make the most of this technology for Australia, there are key issues we will need to tackle. CSIRO has one of the largest teams of digital experts in the country, but these are not issues that can be solved by one organisation alone,” CSIRO chief scientist, professor Bronwyn Fox, said.

The report found that software and hardware upgrades were among the key AI issues and trends, as purpose-built processors designed for machine learning could speed up computations, while quantum computing could lead to transformative leaps in computational power.

Also, the report recognised the demand for better quality data, particularly given the world’s transition into what many recognise as a “big data” era. The CSIRO acknowledged that recent AI breakthroughs were achieved using smaller datasets that were well-curated, fit-for-purpose and provenance-assured.

According to the report, between 2017-2020 the number of university courses teaching AI increased by 103 per cent, highlighting the growing role of education, training and capability uplift.

Of equal importance is the role and prominence of human-centric AI, with AI technology expected to augment rather than replace human scientists. The report stressed issues of trust, transparency and reliability for scientists and reviewers working on AI systems in the future.

On top of that, the CSIRO argued that improving workforce diversity, including improved gender, ethnic and cultural diversity within the AI research workforce, would help to achieve better science outcomes while research organisations would be challenged to develop capabilities, technologies and cultures delivering increasingly ethical AI.

The report, which drew insights from scientific papers published over 60 years to form a picture of how AI was being used across scientific fields, found that while in the 1960s only 14 per cent of the 333 research fields studied were publishing on AI, by 1972 that number reached more than a half. Today, there is evidence of AI adoption in 98 per cent of fields, with the steepest publishing increases recorded over the past five years.

The CSIRO’s report identified mathematics, decision sciences, engineering, neuroscience and health professions as the most “prolific adopters” of AI.

Fox said that AI also played an important role as it helped to deliver “higher-impact, real-world solutions to Australia’s greatest challenges, like AI to help detect disease, predict bushfires, and manage the enormous amount of data we are gathering about our universe”.

“Human curiosity will always be at the heart of science, but these technologies combined with deep domain understanding are increasingly helping to open up new frontiers for knowledge discovery,” he added.

However, thinking about the future of AI should not focus on the technology itself, according to the report’s lead author Stefan Hajkowicz.

“It’s about what happens when AI is mixed with other fields of science and research. That’s where many of the breakthroughs will happen.”