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NZ AI ready but facing investment, talent and data barriers

10th September 2019

New Zealand is AI ready but facing investment, talent and data barriers

Executive Director Ben Reid

A significant national research study on Artificial Intelligence in New Zealand is painting a picture of the enormous prospects for the country from the use of AI, while also facing huge investment, talent and data challenges.

The research by the AI Forum, entitled ‘Towards Our Intelligent Future: New Zealand’s AI Roadmap’, was released on 3rd September and is supported by The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE), Spark, ANZ, Google, IAG and Microsoft, and has taken much of 2019 to complete.

The study reveals New Zealand’s openness and readiness for AI to address significant needs in wellbeing, sustainability and the economy, and the momentum achieved, but this is tempered by significant hurdles.

Executive Director of the AI Forum, Ben Reid, says the country’s current AI state is like building an electric supercar but only being able to reach half a charge:

“We are keen to take on the technology, the AI conversation is changing from impact to benefit, and we are innovators and early adopters at heart, but we need to increase investment overall, develop talent and ensure that we are ready and able to use the vast amounts of data currently being generated.

“Data is the infrastructure of the future. When we think about the shape of New Zealand’s future economy, it is going to be less about shifting physical goods from one end of the country to the other and out through a port, and more about exporting smart products and services. Therefore perhaps our current infrastructure debate should talk as much about “data of national significance” as “roads of national significance” to support our future digital economy better.

“We are already doing some amazing things, from creating digital humans, to identifying health issues more accurately, providing social support and managing our primary resources better.

“Some of our best known organisations including ACC, AgResearch and Air New Zealand are using AI to improve everyday services.

“From almost a standing start a handful of years back New Zealand is now involved in the global AI discussion. However, this is developing extremely quickly, along with solutions, and we need to keep stretching ourselves to succeed,” he says.

A key partner in the research is market intelligence firm IDC - its senior research manager Monica Collier highlights key challenges:

“We've spoken with companies creating or using AI across New Zealand, from AgResearch to Xtracta, and the two challenges practically everyone agrees on are: it’s hard to find people with the right skills and it’s difficult to find companies with the right data.

“Moving forward organisations will need to refocus training and recruitment strategies and some will need to re-architect their business intelligence functions to create the right environment to incubate and deploy the best AI solutions.”

The investment barrier for New Zealand is nothing new and current levels of AI focused support pale compared to other countries. Globally, different sized national and regional governments are digging deep into pockets to support AI.

The US expects to spend US$2bn on advanced near term AI projects and the UK has announced a £1bn pledge for similar programmes, including £100m for 1,000 AI PhDs and up to 2,500 places in AI and data masters conversion courses. On a smaller but still significant scale, the province of Quebec in Canada, with an 8.4 million population, has pledged CA$100m (NZ$114m) in AI research funding.

In comparison, only a tiny fraction of New Zealand’s total investment of NZ$876m in technology businesses in 2017, has reached AI related projects.

Reid goes on to say the shortage of talent is another aspect that won’t be overcome quickly and New Zealand is not alone:

“There’s a global AI talent shortage so immigration is not an adequate strategy because we are competing with everyone else. Global demand for AI talent has doubled in two years and the world has just 50% of the AI experts it needs.

“But, as a smaller country we are agile and so we have an opportunity to learn and develop talent quickly. The rapid implementation of AI by some New Zealand organisations shows how fast we can move.

The successful adoption of AI in New Zealand will also require access to large quantities of reliable and trusted data, along with agreed data standards and governance systems.

“A way to manage data in a secure and effective way is through data trusts, or institutions enabling the legal sharing of data for collectively defined outcomes,” Reid says.

“These enable organisations to become data stewards rather than owners, giving access to information on an as needed or approved basis. Large repositories containing data of national significance could support a wide range of outcomes for New Zealand’s wellbeing, sustainability and economy.”

While challenges exist, digital and technology advisor Oxford Insights found New Zealand to be thirteenth out of 194 countries this year in our use of AI solutions.

It also highlighted the need for more R&D and innovation, a better AI startup ecosystem and improvement in data availability.


Link to the research study:

Significant New Zealand AI projects include:

Microsoft - Sustainable Coastlines, a registered New Zealand Charity, was recently awarded a Microsoft AI for Earth grant for its efforts to raise awareness of marine litter and inspire communities to take care of beaches and waterways. A national marine litter database is being established so schools, Iwi, community groups and businesses can view the data and trends in their area. The intelligent platform also evaluates international weather, tide and ocean current data to help predict future litter accumulation.

Google - Google is a founding partner of Global Fishing Watch ( This service brings big satellite data, the latest machine learning, and cloud computing technology to bear on human interactions with the oceans’ natural resources. The resulting near real-time map shows where vessels are fishing, allowing better monitoring of global fish reserves, including the seas around New Zealand.

Spark - using AI to analyse increasingly complex sets of data to streamline operations and improve customer segmentation, churn, lifetime value prediction, recommendation engines and customer sentiment analysis.

ANZ - in partnership with Soul Machines creating Jamie, a digital assistant, to answer the 30 most frequently searched questions. In the first 100 days, Jamie had 1200 conversations and the pilot has been extended.

MBIE - is supporting a range of contestable investment funds, including: weather analysis and forecasting (Met Service), machine learning (Landcare NZ), mapping and environment friendly control of weeds (AgResearch), autonomous Forest Pruning and technology for screening blindness. The Ministry aims to support projects including AgTech, environment, urban planning, space industry, health sector (ie: precision health) and energy.

The AI Forum of New Zealand was established in 2017 and is a non-government association with a mission to harness the potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to help bring about a prosperous and inclusive future New Zealand. This year it formally adopted its Te Reo Maori name, Te Kahui Atamai Iahiko o Aotearoa. In two years its membership has reached 144 organisations from industry, government and universities, it holds regular events nationwide, hosts an annual showcase conference and fosters vibrant conversation and debate. The Forum brings together citizens, business, academia and the government connecting, promoting and advancing Aotearoa’s AI ecosystem.


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