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New consortium to drive fintech AI

03:16pm November 28 2022

The aim of a new consortium is to take fintech AI out of the lab and into practice, says UNSW Professor Fethi Rabhi. (Getty)

Six organisations have joined forces to form a new consortium to drive leading-edge research into responsible adoption of artificial intelligence in the finance sector.

The FinTech AI Innovation Consortium, spearheaded by leading AI academics at the University of NSW’s faculties of Engineering and Business, brings together founding industry partners Westpac, Amazon Web Services, Databricks, BrewAI and Cognitivo Consulting.

“The aim of the consortium is to take AI out of the lab and into practice,” said Professor Fethi Rabhi of UNSW’s School of Computer Science and Engineering, instrumental in leading the consortium.

“It's almost like a one stop shop for the industry – for businesses who know they want to use AI and have problems to solve, and we will work to solve those problems.”

UNSW’s Professor Fethi Rabhi, who spearheaded the new consortium. (Provided)

Professor Rabhi said PhD students specialising in AI had been recruited to tackle the “problems” brought by the consortium industry partners. Their aim will be to collaborate intensively to advance the state of AI knowledge and share their findings with the broader AI community, beyond the consortium partners. 

“We want the whole Australian economy to benefit,” said Professor Rabhi, who’s spent more than two decades involved in projects to bring together software engineering and finance, including in the Capital Markets Cooperative Research Centre set up in 2001.

“Industry is crying out for people with expertise in AI and machine learning, so it’s in everybody's interest for us to advance the knowledge to benefit the ecosystem in Australia as a whole.” 

David Walker, group chief technology officer at Westpac which has made an initial investment of $230,000 over three years to fund PhD students as part of the consortium, said the work of the alliance would be ground-breaking in helping to accelerate and scale the next generation of AI for the finance sector.

“There are a lot of AI capabilities that we're really holding back until we’re confident we can let it go,” Walker said during a session at TechX, Westpac’s internal five-day technology convention.

“Currently all of the artificial intelligence applications across Westpac are ‘supervised’, but ‘unsupervised’ AI is advancing at pace. We need to understand how we put the guardrails, the controls in place to make sure that any AI is acting in a responsible, ethical way, that it's fair and there's no bias built into it.

“We have a real journey ahead of us to get there, but we’ll be working with some of the leading thinkers in this country and globally through this consortium to help us break this down and solve it.” 

Westpac group chief technology officer David Walker announcing the consortium at Westpac’s internal TechX convention. (Emma Foster)  

The consortium will sit under the umbrella of UNSW’s AI Institute, launched in September with an aim of boosting the impact of around 300 of the university's AI, machine learning and data science academics – work recognised as world-leading.

Professor Rabhi said among the consortium’s initial focus areas will be exploring complexities in AI applications in credit risk and the rapidly accelerating area of environmental measurement and reporting. Both are highly data-driven, technically intensive and regulated areas which have historically relied heavily on human judgement, with the potential for bias or data quality to affect AI outcomes.

“These are areas of great concern to financial institutions, to which they are dedicating a lot of resources,” said Professor Rabhi, who also flagged he expected other industry partners to join the consortium.

“There is currently a lack of understanding of exactly what the implications are going to be. The only way to solve it is for people with experience to keep hammering away on it together. And that's what the consortium does – we’ll hammer away at very specific problems intensively, and each project will pave the way for the next, and that's the only way you can make an impact.”

Emma Foster is a freelance writer. Previously, she led Westpac Wire and was a key contributor until December 2022. Prior to joining Westpac in 2013, she spent almost 20 years in corporate affairs and investor relations, primarily in large financial services and consultancy firms, in Australia, UK and Europe. She is also a photographer and podcaster.

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