Our Complex Relationship with Artifical Intelligence

Briefing #23

Welcome to the 23rd issue of the Digital Policy Salon weekly briefing.

Today we’re excited to share with you that ICTC’s research and policy development team has now been branded Digital Think Tank by ICTC. ICTC’s research and policy mandate has been strengthened significantly over the years and this new brand emphasizes our continued commitment to leading critical research and important policy considerations for the digital economy while also highlighting our growing areas of expertise.

Closing in on the tail end of summer, our thoughts are turning to autumn, cold weather, and the impact of COVID-19 on our lives and the economy during the upcoming school year. This week’s issue brings continued updates on recovery, CERB and EI changes, and pandemic-related research, along with ICTC’s own submission in advance of the upcoming federal budget.

In addition to policy news, our featured work is highlighting opportunities and challenges in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). An interview piece with senior researchers at ICTC debates the impact of AI on the labour market as well as the relationship between automation and recessions, while our research examines foreign direct investment (FDI) in the Canadian AI market, regional centers of expertise, and the applicability of PIPEDA to contemporary issues in AI development.

Thank you for joining us in this week’s issue!

- Faun, Khiran, and Tyler

COVID-19 and Tech Policy Updates 🇨🇦

The transition to life after lockdown continues, but it’s a bumpy road for both education and the economy

Health and education officials are advocating for new saliva-based testing methods to become available in Canada for the start of the 2020–2021 school year. Saliva-based tests, which have not yet been approved in Canada, may ease challenges associated with conducting COVID-19 tests among young children.

Amid back-to-school health concerns, some parents have decided to form “learning pods” — small groups of children that are home schooled in groups. For parents, the pods will help balance health concerns with fundamental childhood needs like education and social development. For some advocacy groups, they raise concerns about education equality.

Retail sales increased by 23.7% in June, led by motor vehicle and parts dealers, as well as clothing and clothing accessories stores. Retail sales are now higher than what they were in January before the pandemic hit, and higher than they were in June of last year.

The Government of Canada has released its plan to transition from the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) to traditional Employment Insurance. More details on the changes, which will come into effect on September 27th, can be found here.

A new report by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business discusses the impact of automation on the Indigenous economy in Canada and finds that “33.8% of Indigenous workers across Canada are currently concentrated in industries with a higher risk of automation.” There has been wide speculation that COVID-19 will increase the speed of digital trends associated with automation.

Using digital technology to facilitate the work-from-home economy also makes us more dependent on it

On Monday, Zoom registered 17,000 complaints in 5 hours by users who were unable to log in to attend business meetings and school classes. Home to more than 300 million users a day, Zoom has become an integral part of business continuity measures and distance learning plans — and Monday was a firm reminder of how reliant we are on it and other tech.

Last week, internet provider Xplornet announced it was discontinuing service in Haida Gwaii, BC, leaving a small community with no internet access as of December 31st. Local teachers who deliver classes virtually are unsure how they’ll continue teaching students. - Mairead Matthews | email

Our Perspective


Towards a Resilient Digital-Led Economic Recovery: Written Submission for the Pre-Budget Consultations in Advance of the Upcoming Federal Budget

Over the last few months, we have seen the devastating human toll of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) as well as its impact on Canadian and global financial markets. Along with the colossal economic slowdown, international supply chain crunches persist, and the global economy is likely to feel the reverberating effects of this pandemic for some time. With global output projections shifting rapidly, uncertainty about the broad and lasting impacts of the health crisis continue to fuel volatility in financial markets and upend corporate decision-making.

Such jolts to our global economy test our resolve, responsiveness, and ingenuity in the face of adversity. Larger questions about the efficacy and preparedness of our communication systems, health systems, education institutions, and trade and transportation networks will come to light, as will our ability to shape sustainable communities and a truly eco-friendly future. The coming year will require an exceptional policy response that will enable a robust economic recovery in Canada. The Government of Canada’s aid and stimulus packages have been a welcome relief for many businesses and workers, and they are needed to weather the storm in the short-term. Supporting long-term goals requires a reflection on lessons learned from the past months and a focus on a recovery strategy that can help Canada emerge from COVID-19 in a clear and resilient direction.

This submission provides policy recommendations, anchored in ICTC’s recently published whitepaper Economic Resiliency in the Face of Adversity. In particular, it highlights the following topics as key pillars of Canada’s post-COVID future:

  1. Digital adoption and acceleration for Canadian SMEs
  2. Workforce development and preparedness
  3. Building resilient supply chains and focusing on trade
  4. Enabling a connected health system
  5. Building cyber resiliency
  6. Supporting a sustainable and carbon-neutral economy

Read the full submission here 📝


Betting on Red and White | Overview

This study examines Canada’s opportunities for leveraging its current strengths in artificial intelligence (AI) to attract high-quality foreign direct investment (FDI).

Betting on Red and White: International Investment in Canadian AI also assesses recent domestic and international AI developments, and discusses:

  • AI applications across sectors
  • Summary of Canadian AI research and commercialization
  • Opportunities and barriers to continued AI expansion

This study extracts insights from industry leaders in over eight countries and seven sector verticals. It builds on ICTC’s 2019 report, On the Edge of Tomorrow: Canada’s AI Augmented Workforce.

Excerpt: Study Findings

Canada is internationally recognized for academic research into AI. The rapid growth in AI research has recently spurred numerous AI startups across the country.

Currently, Canada has more than 650 AI startups, 40 accelerators and incubators, and over 60 research labs. Nearly 30% of Canadian startups were launched in 2017/18. International investment followed, with global giants such as Uber, Google, Facebook, and Samsung establishing AI research centres and operations in Canadian cities.

  • In 2019, Canada ranked among the top five countries for innovative AI-based research
  • Canada is becoming an international hub for AI startups, alongside US, Japan, and the UK
  • Regionally, Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton dominate AI research and startups, with Vancouver, Waterloo, and Quebec City also attracting attention

Read the full overview here 📝

Interviews in the Field


Complex Relations: AI and the Future of Canada’s Workforce

By Faun Rice | email

In this piece from from the archives (originally published January 16, 2020) ICTC’s Faun Rice interviews colleagues Ryan McLaughlin and Trevor Quan on how they approached the question, “what impact will AI have on Canada’s tech ecosystem and labour market?”

The impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on the future of Canada and the world is much debated. In February 2020, the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC) released a study on Canada’s AI ecosystem. ICTC Research and Policy Analyst Faun Rice interviewed the study’s authors, Ryan McLaughlin and Trevor Quan, to learn about their research process and findings. In this interview, the team gives a preview of the study with a discussion of the importance of conceptually separating AI from robotics, the relationship between AI and the recession, and upcoming ethical issues in AI research, development, and implementation in Canada.

Faun: Starting off with the basics, what are some of the main research questions that shaped this study?

Trevor: The central goal was to map out Canada’s AI ecosystem, but that’s, of course, a big topic. We examined AI activity by region, the socioeconomic impacts of AI in Canada, areas of opportunity for the use of AI in different strategic sectors, and the ethical challenges in the use of AI. To start off with, we had to frame “what is AI” so that we were talking about the same thing. It can vary by context and industry. So we began by scoping out a definitional framework.

Ryan: Trevor was responsible for a lot of the qualitative work and context, so he looked at the history, what the actual technology is, what’s going on with the ethics, and where AI is headed. My piece focused on labour-force impacts.

Faun: Earlier in this interview, you mentioned that many of the most AI-suitable skills you found are used in jobs that are lower-income, and you started to talk about the policy implications around this. Was there any job that had a high ranking that came way out of the left field and surprised you?

Trevor: Yes, we tried to consider wages in our analysis because there are some jobs that would be easy for an AI to do, but the wages are so low that it isn’t really costing employers much to have humans doing those jobs currently. On the other hand, jobs like financial analysts, some law-related roles, or something like medical imaging, where you have a lot of AI-suitable skills that are very costly. So that’s something we thought about. But it’s also important to think about professional and local contexts-whether more powerful industry associations or regulations will have an impact on speed and style of AI-introduction, or whether you’ll see different effects in regions with different minimum wages.

Faun: You mentioned that interesting bit about people changing jobs rather than facing unemployment. Is there any study that takes a look at career changes as a result of any kind of automation?

Ryan: That’s beyond the scope of this project, but it’s an interesting proposition. Companies like LinkedIn might know that if people are self-reporting accurately. Typically, independent researchers wouldn’t be able to know because all national surveys here are anonymized. You can’t usually track people from category to category. You just get snapshots without identifiers.

Trevor: When I was completing interviews for this project, it’s natural to ask what will happen in the future of different jobs. But for a lot of the people working in AI for a really long time, most of them were reluctant to guess or unsure of how to accurately predict these trends. So impacts will be visible over a long period of time and difficult to isolate.

Read the full interview here 🎙

Ryan McLaughlin, Senior Economist & Research Analyst at the Digital Think Tank by ICTC
Trevor Quan, Senior Research Analyst at the Digital Think Tank by ICTC

What We’re Reading


Hate Social Media but Love Nature? There’s an App for That

(The Walrus)

“In the clear-cut that day with iNaturalist, I felt both physically and mentally in one place, and rather than acting as a barrier to real life, my phone was merely a medium of communication between me and the natural world. I wondered: Is this the future that technology had always promised?”

Talking Points:

Emily Urquhart recounts her experience with iNaturalist — an app that crowdsources plant and animal identifications. In doing so, she touches on the complexity of identifying the natural world and identifying with it, when our experiences are mediated by technology. To an extent, the app blurs the line between plant identification and augmented reality. This blur is compounded by Urquhart’s meditations on nature, one’s self, and one’s place in the world, as influenced by technology. - Khiran O’Neill | email


Disinformation surging online during pandemic, says Microsoft president


There’s been an online surge in disinformation and misinformation linked to the COVID-19 pandemic in recent weeks, along with cyber attacks on hospitals, says the head of one of the world’s tech giants.

Talking Points:

Tech companies like Microsoft are reporting increased cybersecurity attacks on hospitals, alongside changes to the way disinformation and misinformation has spread online during the pandemic. Actors involved in cyber attacks are attempting to steal valuable health-related intellectual property, while those spreading misinformation are using social media channels to influence foreign democratic processes. With reason, you may be asking, what has COVID-19 not changed? - Mairead Matthews | email

Average self-reported weight gain (kg) across the UK during lockdown, as reported by 1.6 million COVID Symptom Study app users. Source: “The silent pandemic: How lockdown is affecting future health,” COVID Symptom Study, July 29, 2020.

Research Visualized

The COVID-19 Symptom Study is a collaboration between King’s College London and health science company ZOE: over 4 million users in the UK have downloaded the app and added their diagnoses, symptoms, demographics, and other information, contributing to ongoing research about the pandemic. Periodic press releases from this work describe new correlations and hypotheses stemming from the app’s data, including links between estrogen and COVID-19 resilience and self-reported weight gain and eating habits by region, pictured above.

Our Research


Harnessing the Benefits of AI While Reducing the Harms

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) is correct that PIPEDA falls short in its application to artificial intelligence (AI). Commercial organizations throughout Canada’s vertical industries are introducing AI to replace and/or supplement human decision-making and analysis. At the same time, AI requires vast amounts of personal information to perform well and return promising results. For these reasons, AI is profoundly impacting the way we use personal information, both in terms of our policies and practices, and the types of activities we use personal information for.

ICTC proposes that we must clearly establish the following rights and obligations:

  1. A requirement for proactive and responsible disclosure around the use of automated and semi-automated decision-making systems, so that individuals may be aware of and understand the implications associated with the intended use of their data.
  2. The right to be informed when subject to automated and semi-automated decision-making.
  3. The right to access commercial organizations’ policies and practices regarding the use of personal information in automated and semi-automated decision-making.
  4. The right to request and access a privacy impact assessment, and a parallel requirement for commercial organizations to conduct privacy impact assessments for certain kinds of automated and semi-automated decision- making systems.
  5. The right to access specific information about automated and semi- automated decision-making systems, such as: the degree of human involvement in decision-making, the degree of decision traceability, and key characteristics of the training data, including potential biases.
  6. The right to have personal information forgotten–also known as the right
  7. to erasure. This is particularly important given that AI may collect and use inaccurate data, or even create data about individuals based on erroneous or biased algorithms.

As PIPEDA may not be the right venue to conduct all of this work, we must continue to explore other methods to ensure respect for the rule of law, human rights, diversity, and democratic value in the context of AI in Canada.

Read the full brief here 📖

Twitter Highlights

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The Digital Think Tank by ICTC is the research and policy arm of the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC).

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