There is a new gold rush. In the same way that early prospectors raced to stake their claims to extract wealth from the ground, companies are rushing to patent aspects of artificial intelligence (AI) so that they can extract wealth from algorithms and data. This time, however, it is not just about money—though that is certainly part of it. It is also about power.
There is a game being played out on the global stage where national governments are pushing domestic companies to take ownership over the most valuable ideas and algorithms, so that both the company and its national government are the main financial beneficiaries. This leads to wealth and national prosperity, which leads to greater global influence, standing and geo-strategic advantage. China is leading the charge with more AI patents filed in the last year than the United States. And, in this game of global strategy, it is not hard to see why they are charging so hard.
But, this all misses a deeper and more pressing problem. As we clamour to gain advantage economically and politically, we must also ensure that we ask our technology companies, our governments, and indeed ourselves the tough questions. How can we ensure that AI is designed based on ethical principles? How can we do this while creating an efficient environment for AI-based business to flourish? And, how do we deal with the looming job displacement and labour market impacts that will land in the (not-too-distant) future?
In short, how do we create the technologically enhanced society that we want for both ourselves and future generations? The answer is both deceivingly simple and extremely complex.
Most, if not all, people want algorithmically centred decision-making—or AI—to be fair, impartial, and free from bias. Google had an early tangle with this issue when a software engineer named Jacky Alciné realized that the Google Photos algorithm was classifying his black friends as “gorillas.” No one stepped up to defend the racist algorithm. This is because we do want principled, ethical, and fair decision-making. That is the simple part. How we do it is where things get tricky.
First, we need to determine what values are most important. Thankfully, there is already work underway on this score. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or the IEEE, is known as the world’s largest technical professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity. This group has set out a number of guiding principles, and based on these we must ensure that AI does not infringe internationally recognized human rights and prioritize metrics of well-being in design and use. We must ensure that designers and operators are responsible and accountable, that AI operates in a transparent manner, and minimize the risk of misuse. These same broad values were supported by the G7 in Charlevoix in their Common Vision for the Future of Artificial Intelligence.
Second, we need insightful leadership that can champion these values. This is where the government of Canada can play a big role, like it did in the most recent G7. Canada is a global leader in the development of AI, with Geoffrey Hinton, the so called “godfather,” based at the University of Toronto. In fact, the recent Canada-France Statement on Artificial Intelligence recognized the need to “develop the capacity to anticipate impacts and co-ordinate efforts in order to encourage trust.” Canada has the wherewithal to take a leadership role, but to get it right will require strategic co-ordination at the global level.
Third, we need to enhance global co-operation. For example, the focus of the G20 has always been to look at economic policy issues that do not fit neatly in the box of other organizations like the UN or the World Bank. If algorithmic accountability and ethical AI do not fit this bill, it is not clear what would. However, both the G20 and the global community are at a crossroads. They can either become seized with the difficult issues of pursuing ethical and principled AI globally, or descend into short-sighted bickering about tariffs. Canada needs to step up and push hard to make sure that it does not become the latter. If not, we will have missed an important opportunity to build the technologically enhanced society and economy that we want.