Credit: Warner Brothers

Canada’s role in the future of AI

As I learn more about artificial intelligence (AI), excitement and nervousness intermingle to create feelings of fascination, optimism, and dread. Already entrenched in many aspects of society and business, AI is a game-changer, a disruptive technology with profound economic, social and military significance. It is also more pervasive than is apparent to most of us.

Considering the magic and mystery of AI, I’m reminded of the ‘man behind the curtain’ scene near the end of The Wizard of Oz. Having completed their quest, Dorothy and her gang finally meet the ‘great and powerful’ wizard. Initially coming across as inaccessible, arrogant, and failing to live up to his promises, the wizard is chastised and called a “humbug” and a “very bad man.” To which he replies:

“No, my dear, I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.”

In today’s context, it begs the question: who are the AI wizards of our day and what are their intentions? Moreover, how do we distinguish the good wizards from the bad ones? And finally, if AI is evolving so rapidly that its outcomes are comprehensible, to what extent are we ‘pulling back the curtain’ and working together to interrogate the wizardry behind this technology?

The place to find most of the answers to these questions is Canada.

Co-creating the UN of AI

In her book The Big Nine — How the Tech Titans & Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity, author and futurist Amy Webb articulates three possible scenarios that might play out as AI continues to permeate societies, governments and businesses. In her optimistic scenario, Webb envisions the creation of the Global Alliance on Intelligence Augmentation (GAIA), based in Montreal, Canada’s second biggest city. According to Webb:

“The best way to engineer systematic change is to see the creation of GAIA as soon as possible, and it should be physically located on neutral ground near an existing AI hub.”

Canada, the first country in the world to announce a national strategy for artificial intelligence, is a recognized leader in AI. Notably, Canadians Geoffrey Hinton from the University of Toronto, and Yoshua Bengio from the University of Montreal, are responsible for creating many of the AI substructures. Building on decades of research and hundreds of millions of dollars of investment, Canada has seen numerous AI-based start-ups emerge, many of which are developing products and services with the potential to make positive social, environmental and/or economic impacts.

Canada has also taken an international leadership role in trying to understand the role of AI in society, from the standards and practices that govern its application, to research and knowledge mobilization in how AI observes, learns and adapts to data inputs. For Prime Minister Trudeau and his (minority) government, the development and oversight of AI has been a top priority. Together with several Canadian provinces and institutions, the Federal Government has taken the lead to support organizations looking at the ethical application of AI, and created an Advisory Council on AI (May 2019) to ensure AI advancements reflect Canadian values.

In June 2020, the Federal Government, together with the Government of Quebec, announced the formation of the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence (GPAI). Co-founded with 14 other members, the initiative aims to facilitate international collaboration among experts from industry, civil society, governments, and academia on the economic, ethical, policy and legal implications of advances in AI. Complementing this has been the launch of the Montreal Declaration, led by the University of Montreal. Following an intensive co-creation process, this open forum focuses on ethics and values, and how to collectively achieve equitable, inclusive, and ecologically sustainable AI development. With input from across Canada and around the world, including a wide array of sectors, the initiative aims to maximize the benefits of AI while also lowering the risks of its deployment.

It would seem that Webb’s proposed GAIA has been created, except now it’s called GPAI.

Stuck in the Middle

As companies and nations compete for technological supremacy, a ’China vs. America’ dynamic has emerged, leaving Canada caught in the middle. For example, over two years ago, Meng Wanzhou, the Chief Financial Officer of Huawei — a Chinese multinational and a global leader in 5G technologies, but also AI development — was arrested in Vancouver. (Meng’s arrest is apparently related to US authorities wanting to extradite her to face charges of fraud and conspiracy for allegedly lying about Huawei’s control of a company accused of violating US economic sanctions against Iran.) Because of Meng’s arrest, it is assumed that two Canadians — Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig — have been the victims of retaliatory arrests by China on charges of ‘spying’. The two have been incarcerated in a Chinese prison for over two years.

Observing this situation from afar, it reminds me of the Suez Canal Crisis, and Canada’s role in averting a major global conflict.

If you recall, it was an accumulation of hostilities that saw the first use of a UN peacekeeping force. The person behind the creation of this initiative was Lester B. Person, the Canadian secretary of state for external affairs at the time. Through his diplomatic manoeuvring, Pearson was able to find a timely solution to an international conflict involving multiple nations, including emerging superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. This Cold War success resulted in Pearson being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957, which he parlayed into becoming elected as Canada’s 14th Prime Minister.

Will Canada be able to resolve the current digital dispute between the US and China? To be sure, this complex situation goes deeper than Huawei’s alleged ties with Iran. Consider what Webb asserts about China’s AI prowess and the potential to increase its political control:

“Beijing understands that AI is the connective tissue between people, data, and algorithms, and that AI can help inculcate the Chinese Communist Party’s values in the masses…”

AI, Eh, I…Oh!

As we wrestle with the role, value, and challenges of artificial intelligence in our lives — now and into the future — we are approaching new territories in human development and the evolution of our societies. Somewhere between a techno utopia of efficiency and order, and a synthetic hive shaped by invisible and ever-watchful entities, lies a reality that may work.

If the world is looking to improve the way artificial intelligence is developed and managed, look to Canada. Its enthusiastic yet cautious approach to AI strikes the right balance between innovation and progress, as well as equity, justice, and ethics. With our genteel nature (except on the ice hockey rink), Canadians hold a set of values to inform the sort of AI development and deployment that could serve the long-term interests of humanity.

But don’t take my word for it. Consider what the 44th president of the United States said when he addressed Canada’s parliament four years ago:

“The world needs more Canada…”

Canadian Capetonian living in Toronto trying to be a good father and husband as I navigate through life on this mysterious planet.

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