Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in San Francisco on Thursday
Australia will be one of the first countries in the world to deploy generative artificial intelligence across a national public service, with the Prime Minister announcing a partnership with Microsoft on Thursday.
The government will conduct a six-month trial of Microsoft 365 Copilot, with the generative AI assistant to help public servants test “new ways to innovate and enhance productivity”.
The trial will start in January and evaluated by the Digital Transformation Agency upon completion to provide feedback to the government on experiences and opportunities.
One of Australia’s leading AI experts says the trial is a good opportunity, but risks need to be managed in both the technology and the use of a foreign provider.
Microsoft 365 Copilot is a generative AI assistant that works with the US company’s suite of productivity software like Word, Excel and Outlook. It can automate tasks within the programs and even create content.
The assistant incorporates the generative AI technologies of OpenAI, an AI company Microsoft has invested $14 billion in so far. Microsoft 365 Copilot was launched to large Microsoft customers this month.
The government’s investment in the trial was not disclosed. Microsoft will provide training to help APS staff on using its assistant.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced the partnership with Microsoft in San Francisco on Thursday at the US tech giant’s annual event, just weeks after the company announced it would invest $5 billion in its Australian operation.
“By strengthening our partnership with Microsoft, we are charting a course for the future of public service – one where generative AI is used responsibly to enhance the work of the APS in delivering for Australians without compromising on safety.”
Artificial intelligence expert and UNSW Scientia Professor Toby Walsh said the trial is a good opportunity but brings risks that must be managed.
“Government is one third of economy and has potential more than most businesses to benefit from delivering its services to citizens more efficiently and more effectively with AI,” he told InnovationAus.com
“But there are issues to be concerned about, like locking into one overseas supplier and not using an opportunity to spend on growing local AI business, as well as sharing sovereign sensitive data with Microsoft.”
In September the government established an AI taskforce led by the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) and Industry department to investigate how agencies can use the technology safely and responsibly.
The DTA has also issued non-binding guidance on the public service’s use of generative AI, which is intended to prevent agencies from “bleed[ing] out” while the government’s thinking matures.
On Thursday, the DTA also conducted an industry briefing on its request for information for generative artificial intelligence (AI) services and support.
While not a procurement, the RFI reveals the government is open to generative AI products and services like chatbots, business intelligence software and automation.
The RFI gives examples like using generative AI to process a large number of submissions to public consultations to assist in “distilling complex information from a range of sources”, or in the “streamlining complex or burdensome approval processes”.
“AI is emerging as a widely used technology and presents many opportunities for government and the way it delivers crucial services to the Australian community, but we must adopt it in a safe and controlled way,” Finance and Public Service minister Katy Gallagher said on Thursday.
“This exciting [Microsoft] pilot will support the government’s APS reform agenda by identifying how we can safely use this technology to improve our work and service delivery but do so in a way that is controlled and allows us to learn the lessons with minimal impact on existing processes and services.”
DTA officials on Thursday said there was no commitment to Microsoft to make further investments in its AI technology beyond the trial. The agency did not respond immediately when asked about the cost of the Microsoft trial.