An opportunity to shape our future economy

Canadian companies are being encouraged to embrace artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning rather than fear it and to view what is being called the “fourth industrial revolution” as a positive disruption and an opportunity for Canada to demonstrate global leadership in technology innovation.

The federal government has already funded the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, delivered through the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research to promote collaboration between Canada’s main centres of expertise in Toronto-Waterloo, Montréal and Edmonton. The goal is to position Canada as a world-leading destination for companies seeking to invest in AI and innovation.

Sarah Villeneuve, a policy analyst at Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Ryerson University in Toronto, says AI has the potential to increase productivity and strengthen Canada’s competitive advantage on the global market. However, Canadian firms will need to have the necessary complements in place – structured data, infrastructure, redesigned workflows, leadership and talent – to truly realize these gains. Those that are unprepared risk being left behind. 

And there’s no reason to fear large-scale job losses related to the introduction of AI, which is a big concern of both workers and employers, she adds.

“It should not be assumed that introducing AI will result in employees losing their jobs,” says Ms. Villeneuve. “It’s important to understand that, in many cases, AI will not replace human workers but rather augment their jobs. Even when tasks once performed by humans are automated, it’s likely that we will see an increase in demand for workers to perform new roles necessitating increased skill requirements. Employers will need to play a large role in retaining existing workers to fill those gaps.”

There’s little doubt that AI will have a significant impact on the global economy, perhaps even more than the introduction of the Internet and the evolution of smart phones. 

“Canadians have been benefiting from AI more than they may realize,” says Ms. Villeneuve. “For example, firms with a customer-facing component can utilize natural language processing by deploying chatbots to identify the needs of prospective or current customers and funnelling them to the right representative, cutting down on the time employees spend speaking with customers and transferring them over to different departments.”

Currently, the biggest barrier to the continued development and implementation of AI is a shortage of skilled workers.

“It’s likely that the talent deficit is already delaying the adoption of AI into thousands of Canadian firms,” says Ms. Villeneuve. “Not only do firms require individuals with technical expertise, but the complexity of AI systems also calls for workers with complementary skill sets.”

But more Canadian companies need to start using AI technologies or risk falling behind other countries in AI adoption and demand, according to a recent report by Omnia AI, the consulting firm Deloitte’s AI practice, which found that only 16 per cent of all Canadian businesses report using AI technologies – a number that has remained stagnant over the last four years.

The study found that lack of understanding, trust and awareness, among both consumers and businesses, and an inability by companies to scale small pilots were barriers limiting AI adoption.

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It’s important to understand that in many cases, AI will not replace human workers but rather augment their jobs.
— Sarah Villeneuve, 
a policy analyst at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship

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Tanya Camp