Our world is grappling with technological advances, shifts in geopolitical and economic power, backlash against globalisation and climate change.

Today we face four megatrends that are driving rapid and disruptive changes, and which will greatly impact our nation, the region and the world.
These four megatrends pre-date COVID and are more likely to continue well after the pandemic. They are technological advances, shifts in geopolitical and economic power, the backlash against globalisation and climate change.

The first, the technology revolution – or what is also called the fourth industrial revolution – has already had a profound impact on our lives, our work, and how we connect with some of the most disruptive change being driven by the ubiquitous small personal computer.

The changes over the last decade have been profound. Yet, experts predict the most disruptive technologies are yet to come, including quantum computing, genetic engineering and more.

To determine just how much this is driving the next wave of change, I went directly to the source and asked Chat GPT about the implications of artificial intelligence (AI).

Within seconds it replied with an impressive list: the automation of repetitive tasks; disruption to traditional jobs and the creation of others; the ability to easily and quickly make decisions based on the ability to process vast amounts of information; the personalisation of services and recommendations; and healthcare improvements, including diagnoses, treatments and new drugs.

Chancellor, The Hon Julie Bishop, delivering the ANU Australia and the World Lecture at the National Press Club. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

So what’s the bad news, I asked.

An equally impressive list came up almost as quickly as the first: questions surrounding the ethics of AI, bias and its potential misuse; the exploitation of privacy and security by malignant actors; the potential to exacerbate social tensions by entrenching inequities; and economic transformation that could damage entire industries, communities and countries.   

It is clear that we need to place guardrails around the use of AI, as well as regulation – ideally at a global level. We must also set some norms, protocols and conventions surrounding its use. But it is pointless to resist its advance.

Recently the Biden administration brought together the leaders of seven major AI players to make a series of voluntary commitments about its responsible use. This recognises the private sector has the expertise and money to agree best practice and align standards.

While the establishment of a global governance framework for AI is an open question, Australia can collaborate with tech companies, working with other governments, to regulate the space. The United Nations could also play a role, setting up a multi-stakeholder panel.

The second megatrend we now face is relative shifts in geopolitical power. And there are two ways that this really matters for Australia.

The first is the growing rivalry between the United States (US) and China, and the second is challenges to the international rules-based order.

For the first time in our history, our major trading partner is not also our major defence and security partner. In fact, our major trading partner is increasingly in open disagreement with our major defender and security ally.

We are one of the few countries to maintain a significant trade supply with China and we have felt the brunt of its displeasure when our respective worldviews collide.

Our relationship with the US continues to deepen through AUKUS and while we don’t always agree with the US on trade policy we can manage the differences.

The issue of Taiwan also looms, and especially the spectre of war. I believe Australia and other like-minded partners can play a role in moderating these tensions so they don’t lead to a ladder of escalation where the last step is military conflict over Taiwan.

Within this second megatrend is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, not in itself a megatrend but if other aggressors took comfort from it, it could be.

The extent to which Russia’s example influences other territorial or other border disputes remains to be seen. But surely the disaster in Ukraine is a lesson for all.

The third megatrend we must address is a growing backlash against the forces of globalism. This often comes from communities that believe they are increasingly worse off while others have enriched themselves leading to rising populism via nationalism around the world.

Australia, as an open export market-orientated economy, depends on fair access to markets around the world. We should continue to advocate for policies that address disadvantage, not endorse economic nationalism to our ultimate cost.

The fourth and final megatrend is climate change. This is the drive for carbon reduction and renewable energy and a transition away from fossil fuels.

Australia has already experienced the extremes of climate-related challenges, but it is a nation historically dependent upon plentiful supplies of cheap fossil fuels to provide baseload power. As researchers from The Australian National University (ANU) remind us, we have the tools to meet this challenge – but we must act with more urgency.

I am confident Australia can play a useful role in shaping responses to the negative impacts of each of these four megatrends. It already has a national resource to assist in providing the evidence base– ANU. We were founded in 1946 in the spirit of post-war optimism to carry out the research Australia needs to navigate the challenges ahead.

Connecting talented people with diverse perspectives and equipping them with the skills to address the most complex of problems was not just a brilliant idea driving the establishment of ANU – it is now imperative for our future.

Julie Bishop is Chancellor of The Australian National University and was Australia’s first female foreign minister. This is an edited extract of her ANU Australia and the World Lecture delivered at the National Press Club on Wednesday 26 July 2023. Watch the full speech via ABC iview.  

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