From a space industry to micro-robotics

I recently had the opportunity to speak at the first Space Development Summit held by the United Nations Association of Australia. I see the space sector as an enabler of many of our other industry, social and technical goals. In this speech, I tried to link a vision of the future of our mainstream industries, artificial intelligence, energy and robots with the opportunity that investment in the space sector is likely to provide.

I’ve spoken before about a space industry for Australia (for example, see this Sky News interview). The difference now is that this is a mainstream topic whereas in the past it might have been regarded as being on the fringe of matters that were in important to the nation.

As an Australian, I couldn’t be prouder that we are meeting today as the Australian space industry begins to seriously gain momentum. At Deloitte we’ve been talking about the opportunity for Australia in this sector for years.

The size of the global space economy, at around half a trillion dollars, is well understood by this room. The tiny proportion that earned in Australia is also well understood.

Often when we are looking to participate in lucrative sectors, Australia faces geographic disadvantage. In the space sector, we face substantial and immediate advantage thanks to our unique geography.

Most importantly this is the opportunity to inspire our country as a whole.

The time has come for Australia to be a full participant in one of humanity’s greatest dreams. We need to leverage our advantages to this common cause and become a disproportionate contributor to the global space effort rather than rely on the largesse of others.

Australians are great inventors and innovators, we have technical skills and we are problem solvers who think laterally. These are all things that the world needs. The future of space hasn’t been invented yet. We need new ideas and that is what Australians do best!

While it is hard to predict the future with certainty, there are trends that we can have confidence in. It will be no surprise, for example, that more of our lives will be automated than ever before or even ever imagined. We can also be confident that artificial intelligence will be central to that automation,

What will come as a surprise to many is that the energy requirement for the computing power required for the AI of the future is likely to be constrained by terrestrial limits. This is because computing requires more energy that most people appreciate. Recent estimates suggest that the AI necessary to run a car, with even the first generation of automation that we are looking for, could add as much as 20% to the energy consumption of that vehicle.

But it gets worse. It’s unlikely that we’ll want to just have large vehicles running autonomously. Robots are getting smaller, in fact most of the things we want to do in the future are ideally done at the micro or even smaller level and those robots cannot have enough computing power on-board to operate on their own. They require a network or a swarm.

The sum of the computing power required to run such a swarm would be an exponential increase to the requirements of autonomous vehicles. While Moore’s law may have given us access to exponential computing power, it has done little to reduce the corresponding exponential increase in energy requirements.

Some of the applications of technology that matter most to Australia include building and maintaining continent-wide infrastructure, accessing deep and difficult ore bodies and, most importantly for global interests, sustainable agriculture through an agtech revolution.

Swarms of insects and birds have impact at the scale we need. It is likely that we will look to mimic nature and have micro-robotics do the same for our cities, roads, mines and farms of the future.

This vision cannot be realised from sea level or even from within our atmosphere.

In fact, this vision of the future is part of a wider trend where everything operates as a network, manufacturing and product are tightly coupled and infrastructure is inherently smart. Smart cities, roads, farms, mines and more.

We call this the fourth industrial revolution. Not only is the space sector essential to operate the world of the future, it also encourages us to build the right capabilities in Australia that we are going to need to participate in this future.

Excitingly, the move onshore of more highly advanced technology requirements will have a massive benefit for our researchers as they seek to commercialise research and move through the funding “valley of death” that so many great ideas fail to navigate.

In particular, the renaissance of manufacturing, advanced manufacturing, will lean heavily on research that is well advanced or ready for commercialisation today

These technologies are central to the space industry. Advanced manufacturing describes a collection of technologies that include 3D printing and robotic assembly. Ideally suited to short run, highly customised, highly sophisticated items that you don’t want to be transporting all over the world. Ideally suited to an Australian space industry.

Advanced manufacturing is central to the economic future as laid-out by a number of Australian state governments. The space industry provides a wonderful customer that will create capability that will be used by a range of other industries. These are jobs for the future.

To realise these jobs we need industry policy that sees space as an enabler of a wide range of opportunities across many sectors. Such an industry policy needs to pick winners where we are going to direct national effort.

We also need our business sector to leverage the fourth industrial revolution. Deloitte recently asked CEOs globally and in Australia about the changes that were advancing on us quickly. We wanted to know if they understood how technology was going to revolutionise almost every aspect of our lives once again.

Only 2% of Australian CEOs felt they had enough of an understanding of what the fourth industrial revolution meant to them. To weather the changes that are coming, let alone benefit from them, change is needed across the Australian business world.

In the nineteenth century the then colonies of Australia could not agree on a railway gauge, nor could we even agree on where the capital of a future nation should reside. Squabbling over the little things has cost us dearly in the past. Worrying today about the home of the Australian space agency is the same, it is worth cents on dollar.

We should not have a single centre or geography for space. We can’t when the impact we’re looking for is nationwide. We need many centres of excellence, each with their own specialisation but also each tightly coupled as a network. Perhaps even, as a swarm!

To me, we will be successful if we develop a vibrant space industry that is integrated with much of our business community and triggering the change that is going to be so badly needed if Australia is to realise the potential that the coming decades could bring.

The Australian space industry is already helping to lift the eyes of many and will help Australia to make this transition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *