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We need to ensure innovations in artificial intelligence benefit all Canadians

Afraj Gill is a community advocate, adviser to technology startups, and former entrepreneur.

Although automation is not a new phenomenon, this new phase of automation – one heavily driven by artificial intelligence (AI) – will be unprecedented in its scope.

There are a number of opinions on why Canada is poised to be a leader in an AI-driven world. We have world-leading technical talent, great research universities, driven entrepreneurs, a diverse population and important new initiatives being proposed to further our chances of success. Canada's transition to this new era should be embraced to its full potential for its significant economic benefits, but it must also be treated with caution.

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Amid this excitement, a critical topic is missed in most discussions on AI: the necessity of a partnership between the public and private sectors – with input from the average Canadian – in helping ensure a benign future in which benefits of AI-driven technologies accrue to everyone.

At this point, there is little value in reiterating the litany of research on the number of jobs that will be automated in this Fourth Industrial Revolution (such as the World Economic Forum's study stating five million jobs in 15 economies will be automated within five years – Canada is no exception, with nearly half of our jobs set to be affected by automation within a decade).

However, AI is different than previous technological advancements in that its impact on human life will go beyond mere automation of our jobs. Its impact will be broader than anything else preceding it. This is why, in the upcoming budget, the federal government must consider forming an Advanced Technologies Task Force (call it what you like) in partnership with the technology sector.

A benign AI-driven future will be one in which data rights, ethical concerns, social implications and economic effects of technology will be vigorously discussed by both public and private sectors. This is the only way to ensure important decisions are mutually agreed upon, broadly beneficial and representative of what Canadians want.

This task force will have a few core responsibilities, including but not limited to:

  • Putting forth policy recommendations on how to minimize adversity and maximize opportunity for all, as a result of the trickle-down effects of AI-driven automation;
  • Creating guidelines on AI systems being built in certain verticals (for instance, is it acceptable, for safety reasons, to have a homogenous group of developers building an autonomous vehicle?);
  • Recommending ethics oversight, if any, by independent and diverse commissions, on AI-driven capabilities or product features before public releases;
  • Educating the average Canadian on how automation will affect them and their family;
  • Ensuring that important decisions on AI are made with the consultation of elected officials, technology leaders, engineers specialized in AI, and community advocates representing diverse opinions and backgrounds.

This is not necessarily a call for regulation. This is about being proactive and starting a serious conversation about implications in Canada of an AI-driven future. This is about involving everyday Canadians in discussions that will directly affect them. This is about the quality, equality and safety of human life, for current and future generations. This is about creating awareness and empowerment among our country's population, allowing us to respond quickly to change instead of feeling ill-prepared.

In the absence of timely public dialogue on these issues, we will be too late to adapt democratic processes to reverse the consequences of irresponsible integration of AI into everyday life.

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The time for this task force is now. We cannot afford reactionary policy making.

Make no mistake, Canada must not shy away from the responsibility of leadership in this Fourth Industrial Revolution. It will be vital for the health of our economy and national competitiveness. However, we must navigate this journey with caution and responsibility.

We must all come together – as entrepreneurs, community leaders, elected officials and policy makers – to set a healthy precedent for what will be a pivotal period in human history.

Introducing this task force in the upcoming budget is Canada's opportunity to set an example on the world stage on how successful AI-driven industries should be built. It is a small but important step in the right direction – one in which our middle class remains strong.

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