As Ottawa embraces AI, experts urge caution

“The same underlying AI that can be engines of creation can also be engines of destruction,” says Ian Kerr


OTTAWA – The Trudeau government’s drive to transform Canada into an artificial-intelligence superpower is stirring warnings about the possible dark sides of a technology with vast — and largely unknown — potential.

Among the concerns that surfaced this week: “killer robots.”

Known more formally as lethal autonomous weapons systems, the spectre of deadly-efficient technology came up during an open caucus meeting of Senate Liberals who were exploring the pros and cons of AI and robotics.

Expert panellists at the meeting each nodded to the positives associated with these technologies, but there were also calls for Ottawa to develop a well-defined national AI plan.

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The feds were also urged to proceed with caution.

“The same underlying AI that can be engines of creation can also be engines of destruction,” Ian Kerr, who holds a Canada Research Chair in ethics, law and technology at the University of Ottawa, told senators Wednesday in his opening statement.

“We’re talking about weapons that can sense, operate, target and kill without human intervention or oversight. To deploy these killer robots is to relinquish control by delegating the kill decision to the machine itself.”

Following Kerr’s remarks, the meeting’s co-chair Sen. Art Eggleton said: “Some frightening prospects there.”

The meeting was held about a week after the federal budget announced a $125-million investment in a pan-Canadian AI strategy. The goal is to help the country leverage its strengths in AI, so it can become a world leader in a rapidly emerging field packed with economic potential.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau held separate events in the Toronto region to promote AI-boosting measures in their budget. Trudeau said plans for some 25 university research chairs would include “deep AI chairs” across the country.

The government has also made efforts to address widespread expectations that AI advances will lead to the elimination of a significant number of jobs over the coming years.

The budget increased federal support in areas such as skills and training to help workers adjust to the fast-approaching changes.

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Some experts say the government should also get ahead of the ethical questions.

“It’s very popular, very current and quite frankly very cool to … invest in all of these technologies,” Kerr said in an interview Thursday.

“But I think we also have to develop clear road maps, have a clear sense of where we want to go and always have an ethical lens, which by its nature, will be cautious and will be skeptical and won’t be simply cheerleading the technology.”

Kerr said killer robots are likely just a futuristic technology at this point, but warned the AI field is evolving very quickly.

Paul Hannon, the head of Mines Action Canada, addressed the Senate meeting as a member of the public. Hannon has been urging Ottawa to support international efforts to pre-emptively ban lethal autonomous weapons.

“It’s not that we’re opposed to the technology,” he said. “It’s the ethical issues that don’t really get discussed.”

Matt Rourke / CP

Matt Rourke / CP

In an interview Thursday, Hannon added he would like to see Parliament put forward a resolution stating Canada’s opposition to the development, production and use of such weapons. He also said Canada is well-positioned to launch national and international discussions on the issue.

“The technology is moving so quickly that the quicker we get at this, the better off we’re all going to be,” Hannon said.

Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains, who’s leading the federal push to expand AI, was asked about Ottawa’s plans to address ethical concerns, including killer robots.

“I think overall we have to recognize that technology should be a force for good, that technology should help make society better,” Bains said in an interview Thursday.

“It’s not about human versus machine and, (regarding) any issues around ethical challenges associated with technology developments going forward, we will work very closely with industry and civil society in order to deal with those issues.”

Bains said he expected Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan to discuss the matter in greater detail over the coming months.

A Foreign Affairs Department spokeswoman wrote in an email that, at a December United Nations meeting, Canada supported the creation of a group of international government experts assigned to discuss lethal autonomous weapons systems.

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The president of the research group responsible for overseeing Ottawa’s recently announced AI strategy said the $125-million plan calls for some discussion of the social, ethical and philosophical issues.

Between $1 million and $2 million of the investment would be used to bring together some of the best thinkers in Canada and around the world, said Alan Bernstein, head of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

“Now, if you’re saying one of those applications might be in weapons systems, yeah, it’s possible,” Bernstein said. “With AI, I’m not saying there aren’t societal implications — I’m sure there are and will be.

“But I certainly can’t predict what they will be and that’s why I think we need ongoing discussions, both within the public and by scholars, who are really focused on this issue and looking at it in its full dimensions.”

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