Canada Needs a Minister of AI and an AI Industrial Policy

AI ambition requires fervent drive from the top with a responsible minister.

January 25, 2024
Unveiled in early 2024, Baracoda’s BMind serves as a health companion capable of discerning moods and assisting in stress management. The technology is guided by artificial intelligence. (Baracoda/Cover Images via REUTERS)

It’s decision time. Canada has declared its aspirations to be a global leader in artificial intelligence (AI), and now it’s time to lead, follow — or get out of the way. How we manage AI will be critical to the health of our democracy, society and economy. Given the central role AI is playing in driving economic prosperity and global competitiveness, and the fact that Canada is lagging well behind other nations with AI adoption, it is not in the country’s interest to sit on the sidelines. While strategic AI opportunities remain for Canada, the window is closing fast. To drive national strategy and action, a key step should be to appoint a federal minister of AI and digital economy.

Canada has world-class achievements in research and education, with many pioneering AI scientists and innovations. However, too often, Canada has been good at letting go of the very ingenuity we cultivate — the research and development (R&D), the intellectual property (IP), the talent. The Avro Arrow — one of the most advanced aircraft of its era — placed Canada firmly on the world stage in scientific development. In the end, the project was cancelled, and we lost our engineering innovation and talent to the United States. Decades later, with the demise of Nortel Networks, our telecommunications engineers moved on to develop 5G networks elsewhere. Our scientists have delivered the innovation, and our government and taxpayers have invested millions in R&D. Canada can’t let history repeat itself with AI.

AI ambition requires fervent drive from the top with a responsible minister. Currently, AI is led through a heavily tasked minister with a focus on AI safety and policy. The strategic value of a new ministerial position and supporting department could become as critical as current portfolios such as those held by the minister of national defence or the minister of environment and climate change. A new ministerial role would need to be empowered to tackle some immediate national priorities. As part of a greater AI transformation road map, these priorities would complement and reinforce the existing Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy.

First, the issue of lagging digitalization and AI adoption in both industry and government needs to be addressed. With Canada’s productivity in steady decline and the rate of AI adoption less than half that of US organizations, accelerated AI adoption is now the most powerful enabler to transform all levels of government and large and small enterprises. As a catalyst, government can start with driving an accelerated pace of digitalization and increasing its adoption across industry sectors. Small and medium-sized enterprises could be encouraged to adopt AI through much-needed tax incentives and support for building new AI skills.

For the federal government, there is a broader challenge. The new minister would have to make big bold moves to transform and modernize archaic government systems to an enterprise-wide cloud and AI-led future. Collaboration with Canada’s technology sector would be critical to getting this transformation right.

Second, a new minister of AI and digital economy should drive investment in commercialized “homegrown” AI scale-ups — companies with growth rates of at least 20 percent annually over the previous three years — to increase their chances of success. Canada could do what other countries have done quite successfully and launch an “AI Made in Canada” strategy with a goal to create and retain value generated by homegrown technology, IP and talent. For example, if Canada committed five percent of its approximately $7-billion federal tech procurement budget to this strategy, the investment in Canadian AI scale-ups would have significant national and global impact. Our ambition should be to create the conditions for Canadian AI unicorns to grow and thrive.

A global view provides further impetus. Beyond the US and China AI superpowers, many countries are setting themselves up firmly to be in the AI race, including France, Germany, India, Japan, Britain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE in 2017 became the first to create a minister of state for AI and digital economy. Several of these countries have strategically invested billions in AI hardware and companies, as well as developing homegrown large language models and attracting international talent.

Finally, a third priority and challenge all governments face is a regulatory environment that keeps pace with the hyper-evolution of AI, prompted by widely accessible generative AI, which can create a range of content, including text, images and audio. Public policy issues around AI are vast and often straddle a variety of government departments. A new minister could drive linkages across departments on many issues ranging from data privacy to cybersecurity to IP, resulting in more coherent policies essential to rapidly evolving digital areas.

If Canada aspires to be a global leader in AI, we must walk the talk. A Canadian AI industrial strategy should be led by a minister of AI and digital economy.

This piece first appeared in The Globe and Mail.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Authors

Angela Mondou is chief executive of Technation and a member of the World Economic Forum’s AI Governance Alliance working group.

Paul Samson is president of CIGI. He has 30 years of experience across a range of policy issues with partners from around the world. He is a former senior government official and also served for many years as co-chair of the principal G20 working group on the global economy.