Chairman's Desk

Canada needs to become a world leader in the AI economy but first we need to build public support

It’s a politico’s axiom that perception is reality.

Call it a rudimentary observation in a “post-truth world,” but if it weren’t so, we would be living in a very different world with very different headlines. Joe Biden would be in for a slam-dunk re-election victory based on what the hard economic data says is a booming U.S. economy.

Instead, Americans perceive their economy as a house of cards, and Biden’s corresponding polling numbers are worse than ever.

Point is: perception matters. It can swing elections, shape policy, steer national priorities and futures. And in my view, there is no greater question of perception when it comes to our national future than how Canadians perceive AI.

Any prognosticator, economist, hell even your local barista, can tell you it’s the future of our economy and that massive structural investments will be required in that future. Yet, for as much as that might seem as obvious as the summer following the spring, the perception of many Canadians around AI are fundamentally misaligned with the urgent need to go “all in” — to spend big and spend now.

In fact, our views on AI are shifting as the technology expands. According to a recent TECHNATION survey, a whopping 87 per cent of those polled expressed concern over AI stealing their job.

Let’s be clear: it’s fair Canadians are worried. As with all disruptive revolutions, the AI revolution will generate both winners and losers. And while that corresponding upheaval will complicate life, it doesn’t cancel what lies in front of us. In fact, it leaves us with a choice.

We can choose to pick grass and meditate on the cruelty of life. Or, we can choose to refuse to be left in the dust by our international competitors and seize the opportunity to make a strategic, generational investment in this technology, investment that depends on two major steps.

Step one: establish a super Ministry of AI to shape an aggressive investment strategy to ensure we pull ahead. While this idea is not new — several of our competitor nations have already brought this idea to life — neither is it too late.

The mandate of this new ministry would be both crystal clear and precise: ensure Canada has all the necessary ingredients — chips, energy and talent — to be a global leader in AI.

Step two: we need to invest, as a foundational step, in public support for the endeavour overall. Why? Because the only way a “Manhattan” or “Apollo” AI mission will work is with the support of Canadians.

The level of cash necessary to build out our AI economy — to fund the data centres, refine the rare earths, and generate the power — cannot be met by the private sector alone. Governments must become partners, which means government must make monumental, unprecedented outlays. Outlays which will require them to say no to important immediate priorities and yes to strategic investments that will pay dividends well outside electoral cycles. Decisions that will require the expenditure of political capital.

And that’s why we need to change how Canadians perceive the absolutely necessary advantages of AI.

That effort will have nothing to do with lecturing Canadians on the intricacies of machine learning and everything to do with showing how AI can allow Canadians to take better care of their aging parents, curb the amount of time they spend in traffic, and reduce wait times in the ER.

Simply put, you can’t ask Canadians to believe in and invest in the long-term without bringing them along with you. So as much as we invest in chips, energy and talent, we need to invest in building genuine and durable public support for the long and challenging mission ahead.

It is only with and through that support that we stand any chance to catch up, become competitive and win this race.

This article first appeared in Toronto Star on June 2, 2024.

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