Canada has a rich history of innovation, but in the next few decades, powerful technological forces will transform the global economy. Large multinational companies have jumped out to a headstart in the race to succeed, and Canada runs the risk of falling behind. At stake is nothing less than our prosperity and economic well-being. The Financial Post set out explore what is needed for businesses to flourish and grow. You can find all of our coverage here.
The race is on for global industry leaders to take advantage of artificial intelligence (AI) and the wide variety of improvements it brings to virtually every business function. At the same time, concerns are on the rise about the potential social implications and unintended consequences that may come with machines making decisions for humans.
So where does Canada — a country considered to be a global leader in AI research — fit into this exciting yet tumultuous landscape?
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Harnessing the power of artificial intelligence must be a top priority for Canada’s leaders. When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined us to discuss AI in Canada on Accenture’s podcast The AI Effect, he asserted that if Canada wants to continue its leading role, our businesses and governments need to invest in moving beyond the research, experimentation and pilot phase to implement AI-powered solutions within their operations.
Despite our AI research legacy, implementation is where Canada falls short.
Although Canada is home to plenty of leading minds in tech, Canadian businesses are lagging when it comes to putting AI to work. A global survey conducted by Forbes Insights on behalf of Accenture and others found that Canadian organizations are behind other countries in deploying AI within their operations, and well behind countries that can be considered leaders in the field.
The survey looked at responses from 305 global business leaders, including 44 from Canada. Around the world, 51 per cent of respondents said the impact of the deployment of AI-based technologies on their operations has been“successful” or “highly successful.” Of those surveyed from Canada, only 31 per cent said the same — the lowest among any of the countries polled.
So, what’s holding us back? In our recent discussions with business leaders, we found the biggest challenges constraining AI adoption don’t revolve around the time or cost of deploying new technology. These, as well as data, are certainly blockers for many use cases, but some of the biggest challenges revolve around organizational readiness and “ethical” questions about unintended consequences like bias, opaqueness and unauthorized data uses.
We asked about these issues in our global survey: Nearly 20 per cent of respondents identified “resistance from employees due to concerns about job security” as a challenge to their AI efforts; 57 per cent also highlighted concerns from employees feeling threatened or overstrained. While business and technology leaders themselves anticipate little threat to job numbers from AI, the need for more proactive communication, and of course an emphasis on training for new skills, is clear.
It’s also required across all levels and roles. A recent study of 100 top Canadian CFOs conducted by Odgers Berndtson found that 70 per cent of respondents did not have confidence in their team’s skillset to support an AI transformation strategy either.
The other problem businesses face is how to adopt AI at scale while paying attention to the ethical questions it raises. The Accenture survey revealed Canadian companies are trying to get ahead of this. While we ranked last in deploying AI, we ranked high among the leaders in establishing ethics committees to review the use of AI and providing ethics training for technologists.
This is positive news because the survey also showed a clear connection between successful AI adoption and investment in ethics initiatives — or what we refer to broadly as “Responsible AI” programs. This is a growing field full of economic opportunity, and Canada is in a great position to lead it. Getting ahead of the unintended consequences of AI with the right policy frameworks, oversight processes and tooling will mean Canadian businesses can move forward assertively with implementation.
AI is revolutionary. But like many revolutionary developments, AI requires care. The fact that Canada is a research leader and we’re looking at the ethical issues is a good sign for the human beings who are counting on AI for a brighter future, and for the Canadian businesses needing that final push.
Jodie Wallis is Accenture Canada’s AI Lead. Amber Mac is a global technology reporter and author. Together, they host The AI Effect podcast, available for download at theEffect.ai.