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Why Artificial Intelligence Should Be More Canadian

Canada has produced several big breakthroughs in artificial intelligence in recent years, and its government is keen to establish the country as a global epicenter of AI. The country’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, also hopes that the technology will learn Canadian values as it grows up.

Speaking at a major AI event in Toronto today, Trudeau demonstrated an impressive enthusiasm for AI and machine learning, at one point even taking a stab at describing the concept of deep reinforcement learning, an approach that lets computers learn to do complex things that can’t be programmed manually (see “10 Breakthrough Technologies 2017: Reinforcement Learning”).

Both deep reinforcement learning and deep neural networks, which the method exploits, were pioneered by researchers working at Canadian universities. The country’s government is now investing in big efforts to spur more AI research. Google, DeepMind, Facebook and others have also opened research centers in Toronto, Montreal, Alberta, and elsewhere in the country. One factor in this trend is the welcoming attitude of the Canadian government to immigrants.

Trudeau addressed concerns about the technology’s path, including ethical risks and unknown consequences. Machine-learning algorithms that learn through experience often cannot be interrogated, he pointed out. The opacity of AI algorithms is, in fact, a growing concern for many AI researchers (see “The Dark Secret at the Heart of AI”).

“It’s really, really exciting, but it’s also leading us to places where maybe the computer can’t justify the decision—where we can’t explain why a particular decision was taken,” the prime minister said. “It’s challenging for us to think about in an ethical and moral frame, but also as a legislator.”

Fortunately, he believes, Canadian culture might offer the right guidance for the technology’s development. “I’m glad we’re having the discussion about AI here in a country where we have a charter of rights and freedoms; where we have a decent moral and ethical frame to think about these issues,” he said.

AI has demonstrated itself to be such a transformative technology—with the power to build billion-dollar companies and upend existing industries—that many countries are developing policies to exploit it, and to benefit from its impact. China, for example, has made a remarkable commitment to investing in AI in coming years (see “China’s AI Awakening”).

Trudeau also addressed the question of how the pace of technological development may leave some behind.

“You have the haves, the have-nots, and the have-yachts,” he said. “This is simply not sustainable.”

He suggested that whether AI continues to be made in Canada or not, progress is unlikely to slow down. “The pace of change has never been so fast,” he said, “but it will also never be this slow again.”