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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau watches kids use computers at the Pickering Public Library in Ontario on March 27, 2019.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Philip Dawson is senior policy counsel at the Responsible AI Institute and a technology and human-rights fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Marc-Étienne Ouimette is the global lead, AI policy, at Amazon Web Services and board chair of the Global Partnership on AI’s Centre of Expertise in Montreal.

How governments protect and leverage their national assets in the global technology competition will increasingly determine which countries race ahead in the middle decades of the 21st century. And which ones lag behind.

This election campaign is a time to review the strategic direction of the country, and to assess and propose the tools we are giving ourselves to succeed. There is one important but underappreciated area where Canada has an opportunity to raise its game: understanding the rising influence of technology on international politics, and, in turn, on domestic technology policy.

The merger of technology and geopolitics will have far-ranging consequences, not just for Canada’s place in the world, but for ordinary Canadians whose daily lives and livelihoods increasingly depend on digital connectivity.

Traditional alliances, such as the Group of Seven, are increasingly tackling problems that have more to do with flows of ones and zeroes than trade in traditional goods and services, or security co-operation. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, a “security dialogue” between the United States, Japan, Australia and India, recently expanded its focus to include co-operation on technology issues.

New coalitions and trends are emerging, from the U.S. pushing back on China’s growing technology influence to the European Union’s growing capacity to export its tech regulation. The G7 could soon be joined by the “D10”: G7 countries plus India, Australia and South Korea, which would form a coalition of democracies dedicated to securing essential technology supply chains. The Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence, launched in 2019 by Canada and France, and the new EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council are all focused on emerging technologies and have the potential to become important venues for global co-operation.

The issues at stake run the gamut, from how to regulate emerging technologies such as AI, to export controls, to subsidies for encouraging domestic high-tech manufacturing, to rules about how and where personal data should be stored.

Canada has a seat at the table in the global debate about the world’s technological future that will unfold over the next decade. It also has national resources, including some of the world’s leading AI experts and research centres, that it can contribute to these discussions. But lack of a clear strategic vision, and a lack of deep expertise inside the government about how important technology topics are interconnected, means there is a serious risk that, despite these advantages, Canada won’t have much useful to say.

Canada takes a siloed approach to tech policy, viewing issues such as privacy, cybersecurity, internet governance, 5G networks or export controls as “one-offs” when, in fact, they are part of a bigger geopolitical realignment. It lacks both a coherent strategy for technology and many of the tools necessary for its implementation.

Meanwhile, some of Canada’s closest allies have adopted concerted, whole-of-government strategies to address these challenges. For instance, Britain launched the Office for Artificial Intelligence in 2019, an interdepartmental unit that provides leadership and momentum across the government in delivering its AI and data strategies. The U.S. recently established the National Artificial Intelligence Initiative Office at the White House to serve as the central hub for co-ordination on AI policy making across the federal government.

These followed similar initiatives in a host of countries, including France, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia and Austria, many of which have created specialized “technology ambassadors” – and in some cases, even dispatched diplomats to Silicon Valley – to boost their insight into technology issues and their capacity to act on them in bilateral and multilateral settings.

A similar push in Canada would create the right structures and capacity to tackle these issues while ensuring domestic technology policy is aligned with Canada’s foreign policy goals. As a middle-sized country with a reputation built on excellence in academic research, and with only a handful of emerging tech champions, we are ill equipped to lead these discussions on our own. But if we play our cards right, we can wield greater global influence and do a better job advancing our national objectives. This will require finding new ways to tap into the expertise of people who understand Canada’s unique strengths and weaknesses in global technology competition, and can advise political leaders and policy makers on how best to play these “cards” strategically, as a set.

To be clear, Canada has some seriously talented folks working on these questions in pockets of the civil service. On AI, for instance, the Canadian government largely drove the creation of the Global Partnership on AI, as well as set a global example with the first research-focused Pan-Canadian AI Strategy. As a next step, Canada would be wise to leverage coming opportunities in this space, including the billions of dollars of U.S. government funding that is being teed up to invest in AI research. We should also take a big-picture view of our federal budget commitments to data and AI standardization and evaluate how they link to regulatory objectives, the EU’s coming AI Act or trade policy on emerging technologies.

Governments that are on the cutting edge of global technology have a firm understanding of these complex and interrelated challenges. Unfortunately, where Canada stands on these issues is anybody’s guess. What is clear, however, is the U.S. and other countries have a plan and are developing the tools to implement it. Canada should join them by creating a unified, whole-of-government strategy for emerging technologies, and by adopting the institutional, cross-ministerial arrangement we need to deliver on its objectives.

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