There's no question that AI is redefining processes across a whole spectrum of businesses. There is, however, a question of what that means for the overall economy. Canada is now investing in AI research with the expectation that it will benefit the country in general.
DeepMind, the London-based leader in artificial intelligence owned by Google’s parent-company Alphabet, is now reaching across the pond to Canada. On July 5, Demis Hassabis, co-founder and CEO, DeepMind announced “the opening of DeepMind’s first ever international AI research office in Edmonton, Canada, in close collaboration with the University of Alberta.”
Though it was announced as a “first” in terms of leaving the UK home base, in reality, as Bloomberg reported in December, the company started building up “a small team” of researchers at a Google office in Mountain View, Calif. Certainly, there is a lot more fanfare for its move to Canada.
In addition to contributing on the research and education end DeepMind plans to invest in programs to promote “Edmonton’s growth as a technology and research hub.” The funding for such programs are also coming from within Canada, as the University of Alberta reveals in its take on the news. It welcomes the DeepMind move as yet another advance toward AI research in the country, which is the goal set by “the federal government’s Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy.”
That federal program, which is to be run by CIFAR, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, is expected to invest $125 million (Canadian dollars) in trying to establish an AI foothold in Canada. Dr. Alan Bernstein, President and CEO of CIFAR was quoted in StartUpHereToronto saying he anticipates “enormous potential for innovation” resulting from the initiative:
“Deep AI is a platform technology that cuts across virtually all sectors of the economy, with the potential to improve people’s lives. It will help build a stronger and more innovative economy, create high value jobs, improve transportation and lead to better and more efficient health care and social services.”
That makes AI sound like is capable not only of boosting productivity but of improving things all around. In reality, though, it depends where you stand.
To get the point of view from someone familiar with Canadian industry, I reached out to Nigel Southway, a business productivity expert. In his view, AI by itself is not “a magic pill that is going to help Canada or any other western nation economically or gain back significant jobs.” Investing in AI in this way is what he calls “a me too strategy,” a way for Canada to signal that it also has tech.
Southway acknowledges that AI is an essential component of a “CPS (Cyber Physical System)” that involves “smart robots” and other components that are built around machine learning. However, such systems tend to eliminate the need for humans on the jobs rather than increase employment opportunities, and new jobs don’t magically open up when old ones are filled by machines.
That is just the issue that David Autor and Anna Salomons at Utrecht University School explore in a 74 page paper entitled Does Productivity Growth Threaten Employment? One of the things they point out is that “many of the new jobs generated by an increasingly automated economy do not offer a stable, sustainable standard of living.”
While it is true that some “highly-paid occupations” do open up in the context of “advancing automation,” they only present opportunities for people with the requisite qualifications. What nearly 40 years of history demonstrates is that “technological progress (alongside other causes) skews the distribution of rewards increasingly towards educated elites.”
That observation is consistent with Southway’s point that high tech jobs are open only to “a small percentage of the population.” That’s why, in his view, this is another example of a government initiative that will fail to “benefit the economy as whole.”
As with any other technological advance, the thing to remember is that the tool’s real measure of value is in its effects. Properly applied, AI does improve efficiency, but it also usually cuts out jobs. Perhaps the way forward for AI should be to consider not only the opportunities it opens for a range of industries but what opportunities it can keep open for a range of skill sets among humans.