The Digital Century

Ever heard of Tan Le? This is her story – refugee at four, a university student at 16, Young Australian of the Year at 21, a barrister at 22. She founded her first company when she was 26.

She is now based in San Francisco. She is the co-founder of a company called Emotiv – a neuro-engineering company. They make devices that read brain signals and interpret facial expressions. You wear the device on your head. It has the potential to transform things like gaming. More importantly though, it enables quadriplegics to move their own wheelchair using their brain. It will change the lives of people all around the world.

I met Tan last year and I asked her why she went to the US. She said because that’s where the capital and the skills are that she needed. Tan’s story tells us a lot about us. We are a very special country, where incredible things can happen. But we are also a small part of an increasingly competitive world.  In a digital century.

I read a story in The Economist last year that said in 20 years almost half the jobs that exist today will disappear. They will be done instead by machines. That includes lots of highly skilled jobs – like accountants.

Economist Tyler Cowen makes essentially the same point. He argues that in the future the workforce will be made up two types of people – those who can work with intelligent machines and those who are replaced by them.

So what are we doing about this? When politicians talk about the future they usually talk about the rise of Asia or the ageing of our population. Both are big and important. But so is this – the digitisation of our society. If we don’t focus on this as much as the Asian Century, or the ageing of our population, we are making a big mistake.

We are a smart country. We have created everything from WiFi to the black box. Driverless trains to spray on skin. Our digital economy is growing twice as fast as the rest of economy. But there are lots of areas where we are falling behind. Last month Harvard Business Review ranked the digital capacity of different countries. Australia was described as “Stalling Out”.

Our venture capital industry is small and not well developed. In per capita terms it’s about a third the size of the United States’ venture capital industry. It’s almost a quarter the size of Canada’s.

We are also falling behind on crowd funding. New Zealand introduced laws to facilitate this two years ago. We are still talking about it. And while we are talking about it, Australian companies like Equitise are setting up across the Tasman – taking advantage of New Zealand’s laws.

We are also off the pace in R&D. The amount we invest as a percentage of GDP is behind the OECD average. To make it worse the Government is cutting its funding to NICTA.

What I worry about most though is skills – or our lack of them. 75 per cent of the fastest growing jobs in Australia require STEM skills – and we are not producing enough people with those skills.

In 2002 about 47,000 students enrolled in university IT courses in Australia. Last year, that number was about 27,000. To make matters worse, the majority of students who enrol in an IT degree, don’t complete it.

We have three options – we can import skilled workers, we can send the work overseas, or we can change our education system to produce more people with the skills we need. The third option is the only real long term option.

There is a symbiotic relationship between technological change and education. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution it was changes to education – the introduction of universal education – that helped to produce the workers needed for the different jobs being created, and spurred more innovation.

The digital revolution is exactly the same. Our education system needs to change to reflect changes happening now in our economy – and the changes that are going to take place in the decades ahead.

In the UK last year they introduced a new curriculum that includes coding lessons for children as young as five. Coding in Kindergarten. Why are they doing this?

Because, if Tyler Cowen’s thesis is right, we need everyone to be able to work with machines. To put it another way – coding and computational thinking is just as important as reading, writing and arithmetic. The Poms get it. Unfortunately, once again, we’re still talking about it.

Tan Le told me she still remembers flying into Melbourne in the early 1980s and seeing the big open spaces out the window of the plane. When the plane landed her mum told her they were on very special ground and when she got off the plane she should bend down and touch it.

The little four year old did what her mother told her to do. She bent down and touched the ground and then looked up and said “Mum, it doesn’t feel very special”.

Her mum looked back and said “You have to make it special with your mind”. She did. So must we.

This piece was published in The Australian Financial Review on Friday 20th March 2015