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ChatGPT is a conversational artificial intelligence application software developed by OpenAI. With a prompt of just a few words, it can write a cogent, 1,000-word essay in the space of 30 seconds.LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images

“Did you feel the seismic shift in the trajectory of humanity that occurred on Nov. 30, 2022?” Mike Brooks wrote recently in Psychology Today. “That is when ChatGPT was officially launched to the public.” With it and other artificially intelligent chatbots, he said, “we are entering the dawn of a technological revolution that boggles the mind.”

Others are not so impressed by the electronic elixir that, with a prompt of just a few words, can write a cogent, 1,000-word essay in the space of 30 seconds. Not so transformative, they think.

But whatever one’s view of ChatGPT, we should be pleased it came along. It’s a terribly needed wake-up call on the broader issue of artificial intelligence – an issue that, despite its alarming ramifications, politicians have largely overlooked. Alarming ratifications? The idea that machines are well on their way to overtaking the human brain; Homo sapiens giving way to techno sapiens might fit the description.

AI has potentially fantastic upsides, but it’s potentially a new Frankenstein’s monster, as well. No one can say with certainty which outcome will happen.

The term “existential threat” is overworked in these times with all the scare talk of global pandemics, climate crises and war gone nuclear at the hands of a Russian tyrant. But if we listen to the experts, we should be adding another. A June survey by the Ziff Davis company of more than 1,400 tech professionals from around the world found that 49 per cent believed AI poses an “existential threat” to humanity.

The apocalyptic dangers of science gone mad could include horrifying autonomous weapons that can fire without the need for human supervision, cyberattacks and deep-fake disinformation campaigns that would make today’s versions look primitive. And, as former Google CEO Eric Schmidt warns, AI systems make it “relatively simple to construct” killer biological viruses.

But remarkably, the threat that AI could pose has been far from top-of-mind. In the few years I recently spent in Washington, you could probably count on one hand the number of times the issue made the front pages. In Canada, it hasn’t been much different. In the House of Commons, AI has not been a priority.

Rick Perkins, the Conservative shadow minister for Innovation, Science, and Industry, has been trying to drum up interest. “I talk it up,” he said in an interview, “and the reaction is like, ‘well yeah, whatever.’ ”

For too many, it all sounds like science fiction. But ChatGPT struck a chord with the public because of the startling news that students could, with the push of a button, get their papers instantly written for them by the electronic brain. Their own was no longer necessary.

Now, thanks to ChatGPT, AI is all over the news, and hopefully the issue will remain there so that ways to limit its broader potential dangers can be found while still allowing for the marvellous advantages it can deliver, such as breakthroughs in medicine, in automation and in ways to problem-solve.

Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne, who has yet to offer his views on ChatGPT, announced plans last year to spend $433-million on AI development. “This is a race to the top,” he said at the time, “and I intend for Canada to own the podium.”

To prevent it from being a race to the bottom, he introduced The Artificial Intelligence and Data Act, Ottawa’s first attempt to broadly regulate artificial intelligence, as part of Bill C-27, a significant package of federal privacy reforms.

The proposed regulatory framework, which has received little public debate, has been criticized for being vague and skeletal, stipulating severe penalties to be imposed on companies for violations of regulations that have yet to be specially formulated.

Mr. Perkins said the legislation is badly deficient and will be opposed because, besides woefully lacking in specifics, it leaves far too much power in the hands of the minister.

The risks AI poses are heightened, Mr. Perkins said, by hostile powers like China, which is “light years ahead of us” on it and won’t have ethical or moral scruples in deploying it nefariously.

There are so many complexities to be faced. When the internet came online we didn’t imagine, despite its wonders, a time when we’d spending much of our day with faces glued to tiny pixelated screens instead of engaging in normal conversation.

The machine has asserted control, dominating much of our lives. Artificial intelligence is only in its early stages. If not confronted, if not reined in, technology will be more than dominant. It will be king.

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