Elon Musk has warned that artificial intelligence (AI) is the biggest risk we face as a civilization, but several Canadian business leaders believe this apprehension is overstated, especially when it comes to its applications in the workforce.

AI will be one of the most disruptive technologies moving forward, but for those businesses that embrace it, that can be a good thing, according to an expert panel at Startup Canada Day on the Hill on Oct. 19.

“Businesses are used to transitioning between technology,” Rosemary Chapdelaine, vice president and general manager at Lockheed Martin Canada, points out to the audience. “They’ve been doing the paper-to-digital transition for the last decade, and AI and other new technologies are just the next step in this journey. AI will make them more effective and productive.”

While concerns over AI ‘stealing’ jobs has long been a point of discussion for those firmly on the anti-AI side, Chapdelaine believes AI could actually help the workforce.

“Machines can do the mundane work and humans can shift their focus to the more intellectual things – it will aid us, not replace us. AI can spit out data and information faster than we ever could, and we can be the interpreters; the ones making sense of it all,” she continues.

Narjes Boufaden, founder and CEO of Keatex, a Montreal-based SaaS company that created a text analytics and reporting app, adds that the fear of AI comes from a fear of the unknown.

“This fear exists because we don’t know to what extent AI will change the workforce and our jobs; we don’t know where we’re heading with such a disruptive technology. And until we figure that out and frame the change with regulations and legislative policies, that fear will continue to endure,” she explains. “Organizations and the government should be approaching this as an opportunity to streamline business and they need to think about how we can make this transition smoothly.”

Echoing these thoughts is Anthony Lacavera, founder of Freedom Mobile and chairman at Toronto-based venture capital firm Gobalive Capital.

“I’m not in the Elon Musk Armageddon camp; I think AI will work well,” he tells the crowd. “What I’m more concerned about is not the technology itself, but the pace of transition. Big companies in banking, energy or transportation, for example, are already being disrupted and they should be making this transition or they’ll be left behind.”

However, Lacavera wants to see Canada do more in the AI space, despite it already being a leader in the tech, and being home to “the godfather of AI,” Geoffrey Hinton, an emeritus professor at the University of Toronto, head of the Google Brain Team at the company’s Toronto HQ, and chief scientific advisor at the new Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

“We are in a leadership position and we celebrate the likes of Geoffrey Hinton being hired by Google, but Canada is being hit hard by ‘brain drain’ and we need to start looking at how we can keep this talent and build new companies around them here,” he explains.

Lacavera wants to see more collaboration between strong Canadian industries like the financial sector or automotive and technology like AI.

“We don’t have time for egalitarianism anymore; we need to focus on the sectors where we have had a successful history, and incentivize them to self-disrupt so we can continue to be leaders,” he concludes.

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