April 25, 2024

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AI is the new white-collar industrial revolution and Canada is at risk of being left behind

5 min read
AI is the new white-collar industrial revolution and Canada is at risk of being left behind

Zoe Willis is a KPMG in Canada partner specializing in Data, Digital and artificial intelligence. Elio Luongo is KPMG in Canada’s chief executive officer and Senior Partner.

It isn’t science fiction: everything you’ve heard over the last few months about the leaps and bounds in artificial intelligence (AI) advancements is real. It’s happening, it’s happening right now – and it’s happening whether we want it to or not. But, unlike a lot of what we find in science fiction, it doesn’t have to frighten us. AI is, after all, a technology – and, similar to any technology, its biggest implications involve the way we choose to use it.

AI has been around for decades, but it was the recent (and explosive) emergence of “generative AI” that made it a household name. Traditional AI, the kind used to analyze data and predict patterns, has been common for years: think of your smartphone’s messaging app’s ability to suggest phrases as you type. Generative AI breaks the mould with its ability to create entirely new content based on the data prompts a user types into the program. The rising prevalence and impact of both traditional and generative AI makes it clear that the technology is already here, and here to stay.

We believe Canada has the potential to be a global leader in AI’s continued, responsible use – but only if our governments and organizations embrace it.

The challenge is this: Canadian organizations often wait to see what others are doing before they buy in themselves. That has to stop.

According to KPMG’s recent Global Technology Survey, more than half (55 per cent) of Canadian businesses think AI and machine learning (ML) are the most important technologies to help them achieve their business goals in the next three years. Yet only 5 per cent said they are making concrete progress on their AI strategy. The survey also found 63 per cent of large Canadian organizations are prioritizing AI and ML primarily because other market leaders have already adopted it – much higher than the global average (45 per cent).

It’s clear that while Canadian business leaders understand how critical AI is to their future profitability, many are still watching from the sidelines. That needs to change – and change fast. AI is simply too powerful a force for governments and organizations to ignore.

Canada can claim AI laurels. We’re considered a world leader in AI research and development and were ranked fifth in the world in the first global index to benchmark nations on their level of investment, innovation and implementation of artificial intelligence. Many of the world’s AI pioneers, such as Geoffrey Hinton and Yoshua Bengio, call Canada home. We need to build on that reputation and take it one step further, by adopting AI more broadly.

We can only do this by being bold and that requires governments, businesses, academia and citizens to take a big leap of faith. As we have seen in the last year, the technology is advancing at an incredibly fast pace. Because of AI’s ascendant role in driving productivity and prosperity, Canada must take advantage of its leadership position. But we must also ensure the technology is implemented responsibly.

What could widespread adoption of AI look like in Canada, practically speaking? We imagine a Canada where governments cut red tape and deliver better services to citizens because AI-powered tools are helping them modernize mountains of irrelevant, outdated and repetitive legislation. A Canada where grocery stores always have dependably fresh food in sufficient amounts because retailers are using AI to analyze and track the freshness of products that move through their supply chains. A Canada where citizens can get MRI results on the spot because doctors are using AI to detect anomalies more quickly, more clearly and with a minimum of inaccuracy and bias.

But, as many of the leading voices have expressed, we need to be extremely thoughtful, structured and disciplined to ensure we reap the benefits of AI without unleashing the dangers. That’s why our use of AI must always be tempered by human interpretation, judgment and common sense. As with the adoption of any new technology, there are risks, but plenty of risk management approaches are already well understood:

  • Regulatory guardrails: We don’t mean regulating the technology itself, but rather its use. For example, the Artificial Intelligence and Data Act (AIDA), one of the first national regulatory frameworks for AI to be proposed, should be put on a fast track to adoption, provided it is done in a way that doesn’t stifle innovation and that is agile enough to adapt to future change – which there will be.
  • Use case exploration: At the organizational level, start identifying the many ways AI can make a difference for your business, such as demand prediction or customer personalization. Once you do that, educate your employees and create awareness around the impacts on their work – and their potential. AI can handle mundane tasks infinitely faster than a person can, freeing those people up to do more impactful work.
  • Framework implementation: After awareness, develop and implement a responsible AI framework that addresses data integrity, privacy and reliability and is rooted in good governance. Your people need to know they are empowered, even if their role is measurably affected. This all starts with trust.
  • Active socialization: Finally, encourage a culture of fearless but mindful experimentation with AI among employees. This is the only way you’ll realize its full potential.

The biggest risk is loss of control over AI’s impact on human agency and well-being, and the surest way to bring that risk about is to not do anything at all. This cannot be an option. AI is the latest industrial revolution, and Canada can be one of its leaders. The only alternative is being left behind.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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