01 May 2023

Canada’s AI Policy: Leading the way in ethics, innovation, and talent

By Pablo Fuentes Nettel

Canada has become a leader in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) policy, with its government taking proactive steps to promote responsible and inclusive AI innovation through a solid policy and regulatory framework. In 2022, Canada launched the second phase of the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy which builds upon the success of the first stage, launched in 2017. Furthermore, the Canadian Government has undertaken relevant actions to foster the ethical use of AI through mechanisms like the Digital Charter. With its world-class research institutions, talented workforce, and a strong commitment to AI, Canada is well-positioned to continue to advance the field and reap the economic and social benefits of this transformative technology. We had the opportunity to explore these topics with Dr. Nipun Vats, Assistant Deputy Minister of Science and Research, and Mark Schaan, Senior Assistant Deputy Minister of Strategy and Innovation Policy, at Innovation, Science and Economic Development of Canada.

Pan-Canadian AI Strategy

In 2017, Canada became a pioneer in the field of AI, being the first country to present a fully-funded national AI strategy. The first phase of the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy outlined a comprehensive plan to advance AI research and build talent and expertise in the field. Now the country is moving towards a second phase.

The second phase of the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy seeks to connect Canada’s renowned talent and research capabilities with programmes that support commercialisation and adoption. This approach aims to promote innovation and economic growth, while also bolstering the country’s leadership in AI. The Strategy is structured around three key pillars: commercialisation, standards, and talent & research.

The purpose of the Strategy’s commercialisation pillar is to accelerate the translation of AI science and research into commercial innovations that generate economic and social benefits for Canadians. This pillar is being delivered by Canada’s National AI Institutes (Amii in Edmonton, Mila in Montreal, and Vector Institute in Toronto), as well as by the Global Innovation Clusters. The Clusters are spurring business innovation collaboration in five areas: digital technologies, protein industries, advanced manufacturing, AI-powered supply chains, and the ocean economy. Each Cluster-funded project is a collaboration of multiple participants, including at least one small-or medium-sized enterprise (SME), and benefits from government and industry co-investments. Under the Strategy, the Clusters are leveraging their existing programme architecture, collaborative networks, and experience in supporting inclusive innovation to advance market and productisation readiness of made-in-Canada AI solutions.

Another pillar of the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy is the development of AI standards. The government recognises the importance of establishing common standards for AI to promote interoperability and ensure that the technology is developed and used in an ethical and responsible manner. Work under the standards pillar of the strategy is led by the Standards Council of Canada, a federal Crown corporation.

Similarly, the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy puts a special focus on the development of talent and expertise in the field. The government has invested heavily in training programmes and scholarships to develop the next generation of AI experts. Furthermore, the country hosts three world-class AI research institutes (Amii, Mila, and Vector Institute) that attract talent from all over the world. These research centres are currently developing cutting-edge work in different applied AI topics — from health and machine learning to transport and language prediction.

The attraction of global talent has long been a priority for the Canadian Government. As per Dr. Nipun Vats, a key factor of Canada’s success in this area has to do with policy continuity and stability in terms of R&D funding. Canada has supported foundational research on AI for more than two decades through institutions like CIFAR and research grants. Similarly, according to Dr. Vats, Canada has been attractive to researchers because funding is ‘more stable and not so cyclical as in other countries’.

Catalysing AI innovation

In parallel to the Pan Canadian AI Strategy, the Government of Canada is also making a number of investments to catalyse AI innovation and economic growth. For example, the Global Innovation Clusters are advancing the commercialisation of AI through their core programme (separate from the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy). Since their inception in 2017, the Clusters have actively fostered partnerships between innovation actors and industry adopters. These partnerships have resulted in AI-related investments across Canada’s innovation ecosystems of digital technologies, protein industries, advanced manufacturing, and the ocean economy. Moreover, the Scale.AI Cluster has active projects across many different types and applications of AI, focused on strengthening Canada’s position as a global hub for AI-related supply chains and logistics. The Government of Canada’s recent 750 million CAD re-investment in the Global Innovation Clusters, announced in Budget 2022, has ensured strong momentum for AI to continue as an important driver of growth in Canada’s innovation ecosystems.

Global leader in AI ethics

Canada’s government has recognised the importance of the responsible use of AI and has taken several steps to ensure that AI is developed and used in an ethical and accountable manner. Mr. Schaan highlighted this approach, stating that ‘without responsible AI we (Government of Canada) don’t see a way forward’. The Government of Canada has established an Advisory Council on Artificial Intelligence, which advises on how to build Canada’s strengths and global leadership in AI, how to identify opportunities to create economic growth that benefits all Canadians, and how to ensure that AI advancements reflect Canadian values.

The Pan-Canadian AI Strategy includes measures to promote ethical and responsible AI development. In that regard, CIFAR — an important partner in the strategy — has launched the AI Futures Policy Lab. This initiative brings together experts in AI policy to develop best practices for the responsible development and use of AI.

In addition to the Pan-Canadian AI strategy, Canada’s government has also released the Digital Charter, which outlines a set of principles to guide the country’s approach to the digital economy. The Digital Charter includes ten principles, which are designed to ensure that the digital economy works for all Canadians. These principles include universal access to high-speed internet, the protection of privacy and personal data, and a commitment to data-driven innovation that is human-centred and accountable. The Digital Charter also includes principles to ensure that Canadians have control over their own data and can use it to benefit themselves and society.

The release of the Digital Charter is particularly relevant to the development of AI policy. By setting out principles to guide the development and use of AI, the Digital Charter can help ensure that this technology is developed and used in an ethical and responsible manner. This can help build trust in AI technology and promote its adoption across Canadian society. Since the time of this interview, the Canadian Government has tabled in parliament a proposed Artificial Intelligence and Data Act, or AIDA. A critical component of the larger Digital Charter Implementation Act, AIDA seeks to build trust in Canada’s AI industry and protect Canadians from a range of harms by establishing a legal framework to encourage responsible AI development, while setting clear rules so that all businesses can confidently deliver AI products and services that are increasingly important for a digital society.

Beyond national policy, Canada has made relevant efforts to improve global governance around AI, with a special focus on its responsible use. Canada, along with France, spearheaded the creation of the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence (GPAI), an international coalition of countries and experts that seeks to guide the responsible development and use of AI. GPAI was launched in June 2020, with Canada serving as one of its founding members and as its inaugural Chair. As a member of the GPAI, Canada is committed to working with other countries to promote responsible AI development and ensure that the benefits of AI are shared broadly across society.

In the time since this interview, the international AI community has found itself at a critical juncture in the development and regulation of advanced, generative AI systems. AI practitioners and researchers, as well as stakeholders and business leaders outside of AI, have raised concerns about the unique risks associated with these systems’ rapid, large-scale deployment. Canada is working with like-minded international partners, including through the recent G7 Digital and Tech Ministerial Meeting, to seek to establish coordinated responses to these issues and to leverage existing forums like GPAI and the OECD to ensure a unified approach to the safe development of advanced AI systems.

Looking forward

Canada’s ambitions on AI policy correspond to a wider objective of boosting its innovation capabilities through a trustworthy and inclusive approach. It will be relevant to look closely at the impact that the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy and the Digital Charter will have in this regard.

Similarly, it will be interesting to follow developments like the investment of 60 million CAD directed to AI research institutes to help them upskill and grow their capacity to use artificial intelligence effectively. With the new phase of its national AI strategy, Canada has redoubled its efforts to develop and attract talent in the field of AI. This will be potentially reflected in their R&D and commercialisation capabilities in the upcoming years.


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