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New Zealand seriously needs a national AI strategy

Christchurch - New Zealand seriously needs a national AI strategy to keep pace of global change in technology, the Artificial Intelligence Forum of New Zealand (AIFNZ) research report, just released, says.

AI is emerging as a transformative set of tools and technologies to solve many business and social problems. The report says more than half of New Zealand organisations surveyed think AI will be, or is already, a game changer and will enable transformation of business and society.

“Cloud computing and data processing capability is becoming increasingly powerful and affordable. Organisations are placing greater value on opportunities arising from data,” the ground-breaking report says.

“People are becoming more skilled in applying algorithms to solve problems with AI and open source tools and training is becoming more readily available online.

“New Zealand does not have nationally coordinated AI policy or strategy. Very few people or organisations are considering AI, or its potential implications.

“There are a growing number of AI solutions being deployed or already deployed across the New Zealand economy including in the agriculture, energy, financial services, retail and transport sectors.”

More than 20 percent of organisations surveyed for the report have already adopted some form of AI system. However, this result may not be truly representative of the economy, as survey respondents were primarily large enterprises that already have significant investments in information technology.

Nearly half of the respondents were in the information media or telecommunications industries. These companies however, are the early adopters of AI in New Zealand, with 52 percent saying that AI will be, or already is, a game changer in their organisation.

The narrow application of AI is also apparent in New Zealand, with 68 percent of respondents considering AI to improve customer relationship management and 61 percent planning to deploy intelligent assistants, or chatbots, to support enquiries.

The next highest planned use of AI is for the deployment of embedded intelligence into business processes, with 62 percent planning to deploy AI to support financial analytics and management reporting.

Competitive pressure is the key driver for businesses to adopt AI. While health and safety legislation is driving some to adopt AI in attempts to automate tedious or dangerous work, most of adoption is focused on managing data and information, to improve business performance.

AIFNZ executive director Ben Reid says the survey found many businesses are simply being complacent about both the opportunities and the potential broader challenges of AI.

“While universities have been conducting research projects on AI in New Zealand and overseas for decades, it is only now rapidly becoming an attractive commercial opportunity.

“The momentum in the private sector has also exposed a disconnection between universities and businesses. The private sector needs research that is practical, applied and will develop solutions for real world business problems.

“There are several current university AI related projects linked to industry and a small number have led to commercial spin offs, such as the University of Auckland’s Soul Machines and the evolution of Nyriad from its beginnings in data compression technology.

“New Zealand should consider a coordinated national approach to AI research. To accelerate both AI research and more effective use of AI within businesses, New Zealand needs to increase its onshore talent pool.

“There is an acute worldwide shortage of machine learning experts with intense competition for talent. Machine learning is the highest demand growth tech skill set globally.

“Recent international research has estimated there are about 22,000 PhD qualified AI experts worldwide, of which only 85 are in New Zealand. It is essential that New Zealand actively competes for talent or risks becoming merely a downstream consumer of AI research from other countries,” Reid says.

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