G7 Science Summit examines repercussions stemming from tsunami of new digital technologies

Mark Henderson
May 9, 2018

Canada’s hosting of this year’s G7 Summit is being preceded by an unprecedented series of research summits that examine the potential and impacts of digital technologies and sustainable oceans. The summits - organized by the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) - are intended to inform discussion at the main event in Charlevoix, QC on June 8-9.

After an initial meeting in March to discuss gender equity in research and finalize the statements of the G7 Science Academies, the RSC held a half-day summit in Ottawa on April 26 on “Our Digital Future,” building on the Academies’ stated objective of “realising our digital future and shaping its impact on knowledge, industry and the workforce”. An official statement will be released prior to the Charlevoix meeting.

“This is the first time the G7 (Science Academies) has done this. We’re highlighting key themes and inviting more discussion. The RSC’s new strategic plan has driven this approach … the potential to help with global challenges are more urgent than ever,” says Dr Chad Gaffield, RSC president, professor of history at the Univ of Ottawa and former president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. “We wanted to make it a deep dive and seize the opportunity in a robust way. That was our contribution.”

The Digital Future summit featured two panel discussions and keynote presentations from Nidhu Hegde, the applied research team lead at Borealis AI and Denis Thérien, VP research and partnerships at Element AI. By choosing artificial intelligence as the focus on the keynote presentations, the summit provided a potent forum for showcasing Canada’s seminal work and leadership in the burgeoning field of AI as well as delving into its social, economic and ethical dimensions.

Borealis AI is a machine learning-focused research institute led by the Royal Bank of Canada. Hegde says the bank’s engagement in the field reflects its intention to become a leader in the field and create wealth by retaining top research talent emerging from Canadian universities while addressing the loss of Canadian intellectual property to foreign jurisdictions. Borealis has established a network of labs across the country in Toronto, Waterloo, Montreal, Edmonton and Vancouver

“We want to take advantage of and build on local talent. Borealis has partnerships with universities, AMII (Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute) and the Vector Institute (for Artificial Intelligence),” says Hegde. “We do lots of fundamental research in open collaboration with universities. It’s important to the new data being generated because there’s lots of bias in data and we need algorithms to counter this.”

Hegde notes that the EU has been at the forefront of enhancing privacy for the massive amounts of data being generated by digital technologies and points to the recent introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which came into effect May 2.

The GDPR aims to reshape the way organizations across the EU approach data privacy by harmonizing data privacy laws across Europe and boosting data privacy through research, policy and practice.

“It’s an effort to recognize that 1990s dream of digital technologies that will empower us all, democratize institutions and enlarge the capacity for active inclusion,” says Gaffield. “We now know that it can go both ways and can run roughshod over people. The EU has been battling this for a number of years. It’s being supportive of research on cybersecurity in ways we did not anticipate in the nineties ... A lot of research says the digital divide is increasing the bifurcation of society and some are taking advantage.”

Summit panelist Benoit Dupont, a Canada Research Chair in Cybersecurity at the Univ of Montreal, says the unprecedented challenges surround AI - from asymmetrical transparency and the Facebook leak to humans attacking machines (and vice versa) – is what prompted the Montreal AI community to issue a set of seven guiding principles as part of its Montreal Declaration on the Responsible Development of Artificial Intelligence.

Dupont also identified two “black boxes” – technologies and algorithms and how private companies use data - as urgent evidence that the usage and implications need to be discussed broadly.

“We need to have a much more democratic conversation,” says Dupont, adding that the conversation must involve users at a much greater scale than is occurring now.

The call for transparency and openness also extends to the threats posed by the potential weaponization of AI. Summit panelist Ian Kerr, a Canada Research Chair holder in Ethics, Law and Technology at the Univ of Ottawa, spearheaded a letter to the prime minister arguing for its prohibition. The letter was signed by more than 200 members of the Canadian research community and penned by Kerr, Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton, Rich Sutton and Doina Precup. It calls for the prime minister to “make Canada the 20th country in the world to take a firm global stand against weaponizing AI. Lethal autonomous weapons systems that remove meaningful human control from determining the legitimacy of targets and deploying lethal force sit on the wrong side of a clear moral line”.

Summit keynote Therien says the current state of AI is fast moving and chaotic but it also represents fundamental change to humanity on a whole other level from computers and the Internet. What’s required, says Therien, is a comprehensive, multidisciplinary research approach to ensure that its disruptive potential is properly managed and channeled through appropriate safeguards.

“There has to be serious academic research to deepen our understanding. The research is not there yet,” says Therien, adding that the research must engage not just technology but also the social sciences and humanities. “Four companies control 80% of the data which is not a good situation and societies and nations have to do something about it. We need more discussion leading to action – small steps. In the EU, GDPR becomes law on May 25th. Many were initially nervous about it but they now see it as an advantage.”

The 2018 G7 Summit builds on last year’s event held in Turin Italy, which explored issues surrounding the next production revolution to make it more inclusive, open and secure. Following that meeting, G7 leaders issued a declaration containing an annex entitled G7 People-Centre Action Plan on Innovation, Skills and Labor.








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