David Johnston is an executive adviser at Deloitte Canada and former Governor-General of Canada
Technological revolutions have profound effects on human civilization – sometimes good, sometimes bad. We are now well into the Digital Age, one of the most significant technological revolutions since hunter-gatherers developed agriculture. In one area – artificial intelligence (AI) – Canada is establishing the basis for global leadership. We were the first country in the world to develop a national AI strategy. We are building an AI supercluster and large-scale AI venture-capital funds are being deployed. We have more than 30 years of world-class research to build on, led by scientists such as Dr. Joelle Pineau from Montreal, who just won a Governor-General’s Innovation Award for AI contributions to health robotics.
A new study from Deloitte Canada titled Canada’s AI Imperative, Overcoming Risks, Building Trust, shows how AI (computer systems that mimic or augment human intelligence) can fundamentally change the way we live, work, do business and make decisions in every aspect of our lives. By 2020, about 85 per cent of all customer-service interactions will take place without a human agent, research firm Gartner Inc. predicted in 2011. But this year’s Deloitte study also makes clear that trust in AI is low as we become aware of the risks, challenges and ethical implications of using it. We are worried about our jobs, about fake news, about our loss of privacy, about bias, cybersecurity and more. We can hardly turn back on AI – that is not likely feasible in any event – so how do we move forward?
To start, it is clear that we have not yet found a shared sense of purpose for AI. What good are our most significant technological advances if they are not understood or used in the context of serving this planet and those who dwell on it?
We have not yet found a way to work well together on AI standards and practices that mirror our distinctly Canadian values, and develop AI that is open, safe, equitable, democratic and used in ways that create prosperity for all. And when companies and leaders fail to live up to their promises, we too often do not hold them to account.
In short, we have not built trust.
So where do we go from here?
We know trust and understanding have always gone hand in hand. As Louis Brandeis put it more than 100 years ago, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." Research shows that knowledge and understanding are critical factors in successful technology diffusion across organizations and societies. Businesses, governments and educational institutions will need to work together to demystify AI and build literacy on how AI works, the way it uses data, and what it can and cannot do. We have a lot of work to do.
Ethicists often tell us that morality is the sensitivity to the needs of others over self-interest. And that ethics helps us determine what is right, good and just. What does this have to do with technology and how does this build trust?
I have participated in dozens of conferences on technological innovation, but one I recall with particular clarity and fondness. It featured Robert Shiller, the Nobel Prize-winning economist. To my surprise, he did not speak about innovation, certainly not directly. Instead, he talked about what contributes most to what he calls a good society. According to Dr. Shiller, if one looks at the world’s major religions, they all have at their core the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. He went on at length and in detail, but the upshot of his remarks was that surely we should draw guidance from this fact and apply it in our personal, business and professional lives.
Almost 2,500 years ago, Hippocrates helped medicine develop by establishing an oath that set out such principles as physician-patient confidentiality and “first, do no harm."
What ethics will we adopt for AI? I firmly believe that Canada can lead the world in this area. It is remarkable to me that last year’s “Tech for Good” declaration by the Canadian technology community – unveiled at Communitech’s similarly themed True North conference in Waterloo Region – started with a tech version of the Golden Rule: “We promise to manage and use your data like we would expect others to use our own."
The best technological developments are more than useful – they are good. Our challenge as Canadians, then, is to make this attitude part of our culture. To adhere to the moral imperative ahead of the operational imperative. And in this way, build trust.