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Michael Cai works on an industrial grade battery for the marine industry on the assembly line at Corvus Energy in Richmond, B.C., on Thursday Oct. 20, 2016. (DARRYL DYCK For The Globe and Mail)
Michael Cai works on an industrial grade battery for the marine industry on the assembly line at Corvus Energy in Richmond, B.C., on Thursday Oct. 20, 2016. (DARRYL DYCK For The Globe and Mail)

Canadians unconcerned about technology’s impact on the economy: poll Add to ...

If machines are really getting smarter and threatening to replace human workers en masse, Canadians don’t seem overly alarmed just yet.

That’s the upshot of a poll released Saturday by Abacus Data. The Ottawa polling firm found 89 per cent of Canadians agreed “technological change has been good for the world,” while 76 per cent agreed “technological change has been good for my own economic well-being.” While wealthier respondents were more likely to see technology change as good for their prosperity, two-thirds of respondents labelled “working/lower” class agreed.

“The broad consensus that technological change has been good for the world crosses party lines, generations, and self-defined class status,” Abacus said in a release. “Majorities in every case are of the view that the impact has been positive for them personally.” Only 18 per cent of adults were fearful about the impact of technological advances, artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet, as well as globalization and immigration.

Those results came despite the fact 62 per cent of those polled agreed “whether we like it or not, technology will continue to disrupt the economy” and were evenly split on whether AI and automation helped or hurt Canada’s future economic prospects. Respondents were relatively more negative on the potentially harmful impacts of technology on the Canadian economy than from immigration or globalization.

Recent breakthroughs in AI “machine learning” – many pioneered by Canadian researchers – have paved the way for technology to radically change how work is done and by whom, or by what. Self-teaching algorithms and robots are poised to perform tasks that machines have been unable to do on their own such as operating cars, detecting fraud, transcribing human speech, and sorting, selecting and packing goods. That has raised the spectre that millions of workers could be displaced by machines in years to come.

Technology proponents argue there will still be plenty of work for humans, but how they do their jobs and what they are paid could be transformed. “The first effect of machine intelligence will be to lower the cost of goods and services that rely on prediction” in a range of sectors, University of Toronto academics Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans and Avi Goldfarb wrote in a Harvard Business Review article titled The Simple Economics of Machine Intelligence, published last November. As a result, “we will start using prediction to perform tasks where we previously didn’t [while] the value of other things that complement prediction will rise.”

“The question of technology is becoming more complex or nuanced,” said Abacus chairman Bruce Anderson. “On the whole, Canadians see big upsides to the technological revolution that has transformed world economies. However, there is already a fair bit of anxiety about the dislocation that may occur as a result of artificial intelligence and automation.”

The findings mirror the results of a global survey by British research firm Vanson Bourne last year, commissioned by Dell Technologies, that suggested Canadian companies hadn’t been as affected by digital disruption, nor had they transformed as much to compete in the digital economy as their peers elsewhere. Another poll, by the Angus Reid Institute last year, found 63 per cent of Canadians were seriously concerned new technology would likely eliminate more jobs than would be created.

Abacus surveyed 1,500 randomly selected Canadian adults online from April 21-24. The poll, weighted according to census data, is considered to have a margin of error of plus-minus 2.6 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

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