AI is having a moment. What should the government do about it?


Once the domain of a relatively select group of tech workers, academics and science fiction enthusiasts, the debate over the future of artificial intelligence has been thrust into the mainstream. And a group of cross-party MPs say Canada isn’t yet ready to take on the challenge.

The popularization of AI as a subject of concern has been accelerated by the introduction of ChatGPT, an AI chatbot produced by OpenAI that is capable of generating a broad array of text, code and other content. ChatGPT relies on content published on the internet as well as training from its users to improve its responses.

ChatGPT has prompted such a fervour, said Katrina Ingram, founder of the group Ethically Aligned AI, because of its novelty and effectiveness. 

“I would argue that we’ve had AI enabled infrastructure or technologies around for quite a while now, but we haven’t really necessarily been confronted with them, you know, face to face,” she told CBC Radio’s The House in an interview that aired Saturday.

LISTEN | MPs discuss how Canada should respond to AI advances:

CBC News: The House17:16AI is changing everything. Can the government regulate it?

As artificial intelligence continues to rapidly evolve, a group of MPs warn we may not be ready for the revolutionary changes ahead. Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner, Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith and NDP MP Brian Masse join Catherine Cullen to discuss what’s at stake as Parliament debates Canada’s first-ever proposed regulations for AI.

Ingram said the technology has prompted a series of concerns: about the livelihoods of professionals like artists and writers, about privacy, data collection and surveillance and about whether chatbots like ChatGPT can be used as tools for disinformation.

With the popularization of AI as an issue has come a similar increase in concern about regulation, and Ingram says governments must act now.

“We are contending with these technologies right now. So it’s really imperative that governments are able to pick up the pace,” she told host Catherine Cullen.

That sentiment — the need for speed — is one shared by three MPs from across party lines who are watching the development of the AI issue. Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner, NDP MP Brian Masse and Nathaniel Erskine-Smith of the Liberals also joined The House for an interview that aired Saturday.

“This is huge. This is the new oil,” said Masse, the NDP’s industry critic, referring to how oil had fundamentally shifted economic and geopolitical relationships, leading to a great deal of good but also disasters — and AI could do the same.

Issues of both speed and substance

The three MPs are closely watching Bill C-27, a piece of legislation currently being debated in the House of Commons that includes Canada’s first federal regulations on AI.

But each MP expressed concern that the bill may not be ready in time and changes would be needed.

“This legislation was tabled in June of last year, six months before ChatGPT was released and it’s like it’s obsolete. It’s like putting in place a framework to regulate scribes four months after the printing press came out,” Rempel Garner said. She added that it was wrongheaded to move the discussion of AI away from Parliament and segment it off to a regulatory body.

“I think the first thing is we need to get consensus that legislation isn’t enough,” Masse noted.

A woman speaks in front of a microphone, backed by flags from Canadian provinces.
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner says there are problems with the current proposal on AI regulation, but she’s still optimistic Parliament could move quickly. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Still, Rempel Garner said she was optimistic that Parliament could move quickly to address regulation, especially given the fact that AI as an issue has not so far polarized along partisan lines. Erskine-Smith expressed some similar optimism.

“I think there’s great potential for it to meaningfully address the problems. The question really, and the challenge, is at what time it’s going to address those challenges,” Erskine-Smith said.

Member of Parliament for Beaches—East York Nathaniel Erskine-Smith speaks to reporters during the Liberal summer caucus retreat in St. Andrews, N.B. on Monday, September 12, 2022.
Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith says much depends on the timing of regulation put forward by Parliament, and the specifics of what that regulation actually looks like. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

While timing is one concern, the substance of the legislation and potential legislation is also an issue. Erskine-Smith said there wasn’t much indication of what the regulations actually would be, and how they’d address the substantive issues with AI right now.

The three MPs identified a few key areas of concern, including the balance between utility and danger, the idea that the range of options available to people might be subtly limited by AI and the risk posed by relatively untested AI products deployed rapidly and widely.

“[AI technologies] have just so rapidly changed the world and it’s really not getting the attention that it needs,” Rempel Garner said. She likened the current situation to an unregulated pharmaceutical industry, without research ethics or clinical trials.

Canadian politician speaks on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in 2021.
NDP MP Brian Masse worries that Canadian institutions may not be able to keep up with the pace of technological change. (The Canadian Press)

Rempel Garner proposed a move away from a focus on punitive measures and toward a set of principles to guide future AI regulation. She also said government and broader society need to play a role, because the tech industry can’t regulate itself. 

“Right now they’re in a race to deploy. They’re not in a race to think about the broader societal impacts,” Rempel Garner said.

Masse said he hoped the process could be opened up to more parliamentarians. And he added AI posed a significant challenge to the way Canadian institutions currently function, given the rapid pace of technological advancements in AI and the relatively slow pace of institutional reform.

“We put a lot of trust into our institutions, which aren’t built to actually do this,” Masse said.

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