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Australia and the Information and Computer Technology revolution

By Brian Anderson - posted Wednesday, 15 August 2001

In 1945 the chairman of IBM forecast that there might be a need for perhaps four or five computers. These days, information and communication technologies are ubiquitous and embedded in ever more products.

As a result of these technologies, today we have things like cochlear implants; vastly improved weather forecasting; General Motors shipping more computer power than any computer manufacturer – all to control fuel efficiency, braking, temperature in its cars – and so on. It is possible to call a 1800 number and book a seat on an aeroplane that might be flying between Frankfurt and Paris. We are all familiar too with what mobile phone usage can bring and it is even more impressive that you can just step off the plane in Frankfurt or Hong Kong or Johannesburg or New York and make a call immediately. And in those cities if you want to read The Australian or The Sydney Morning Herald each morning, you can, if you have Internet access.

Of course, one can envisage that computers will get faster and have more memory but is there anything more beyond faster and bigger? Well, yes, there is. In the future we can look forward to Internet access almost anywhere in the world, with a wireless connection. We can look forward to natural language processing by computers, something that will truly automate directory assistance or ATO interaction, and do away with call centres. We can probably look forward to lawyers pleading a case in property law in front of a computer rather than a judge – a computer that has moved beyond the storage or handling of data or even information, and not only has a knowledge base in it, but indeed has developed some wisdom.


You may have read that there is a limit on the speeds with which chips will be able to operate and therefore there will be a limit to this treasure trove of exciting capabilities. Know then that we will partially be migrating at some stage from dependence on silicon to dependence on biological material as very basic building blocks in computers, and then many more of us will permanently wear or have implanted computers as part of bionic devices.

The fact that over the past year there has been a reappraisal of the money to be made from high-tech stocks, especially ICT stocks, serves in no way to contradict the rich landscape of scientific and commercial opportunities lying before us; a landscape of Information and Computer Technology (ICT) industry itself, of other industries differentiating their products with ICT, and of all industries propelled to new heights of productivity. The information industry itself is in its infancy. Australia has not missed the bus; fleets are yet to arrive. Can we catch them? Can we dare to seek to drive at least some of them?

An honest self-appraisal is part of answering these questions. So how is Australia doing? I would like to give you some statistics. The most positive statistic concerns Australian use of ICT products.

There is no doubt that by world standards we are a leading user, in terms of quantity measures. What I am far less clear about is the extent to which this use derives from consumption, such as video recorders or DVDs in the home or mobile phones as fashion statements for teenagers – as opposed to use for productive purposes, for example, robots to build cars more cheaply, computers to control automated warehouses containing cars, washing machines, detergent packets and so on, or software to take some of the pain out of the GST for small businesses.

If you move away from use and look at a number of other measures, the picture is much less attractive.

In 1997 Ireland produced about $2800 of ICT goods per capita, while Australia produced less than $200 per capita. We were just edged out in the OECD league table by Portugal, approximately equal with Spain and ahead of only Greece, the lowest producer. You may be cheered to know that our telecommunications patents over a 5-year period increased by 5 per cent, but on the other hand in that same period, the US’s patenting increased by 61 per cent.


If you look at the strength of our ICT scientific R&D base, your first problem is to find adequate indicators. There are at best surrogates. One of them is called citation intensity.

It measures how much Australia’s published work is seen as relevant by the rest of the world. In the computer science area, Australia’s intellectual endeavour is rated by the world as having 28 per cent less relevance than the world average. There is no other area of science and technology in Australia that is as poorly rated by this measurement as is computer science.

What about our imports and exports? The knowledge intensity of world manufactured exports has been growing for about 25 years. There is a more detailed aspect about the pattern of the world manufacturing exports which is also important: high-tech exports have been growing faster than low-tech and medium-tech exports. What has been happening with Australia? In 1997 the ICT share of our exports was 5 per cent and the ICT share of our imports was 13 per cent. In the OECD league, that ratio put us at 24th worst, out of 28. Several years later we know there has been a big fall in exports and a big rise in imports, because our ICT industry has been weakening.

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This is an edited extract from Prof Anderson’s address to the National Press Club, Canberra on 25 July 2001. Click here to read the full transcript.

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About the Author

Professor Brian D O Anderson is President of the Australian Academy of Science.

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