AI guidelines take the stage at Edmonton's Upper Bound convention

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Artificial intelligence (AI) ethics were on the “C” stage of the Upper Bound convention Tuesday afternoon as panelists discussed Bill C-27 and, while guidelines are coming from the federal government, the timeline is murky at best.

“It’s a really, really quite complicated set of acts and it is going to take some time for this bill to move forward and be completely passed,” said Michael McNally, assistant professor of library information studies at the University of Alberta.

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The Upper Bound AI convention kicked off on Tuesday at the Edmonton Convention Centre. Speakers from various backgrounds discussed different elements about the future uses of AI starting Tuesday morning. After the excitement of current functions and future uses, like a sober thought, came conversations about AI regulation, beginning with a panel hosted by McNally and fellow University of Alberta professor and Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) fellow Geoffrey Rockwell.

Before McNally and Rockwell took to the stage on Tuesday, speaking roughly an hour before them was the co-founder and CEO of Clio, Jack Newton. Clio is a cloud-based law firm management software. Newton spoke about the overarching benefits of technologies that disrupt, typified by the title of his presentation: Disrupt, Scale, Repeat.

Newton spoke passionately to more than 100 of the convention’s attendees who had tuned in using their programable earphones. The earphones turned to three different colours, gold; blue; or red, depending on the stage they were watching. The golden-eared listeners learned about how Newton’s own business had started in an electric moment, not unlike the current AI explosion, when cloud computing and storage emerged.

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“We saw the cloud as really a fundamentally new way of accessing a market and disrupting a market. And it turns out we got our timing exactly right. There was an increasing appetite to adopt technology within law firms,” said Newton.

The Edmonton-started, now Burnaby-based, company grew exponentially, but Newton’s story came with a moral. While many were eager to adopt the new technology, others saw it in a negative light.

“We had people high fiving us, shaking our hands, thanking us for finally bringing a seamless, easy to use cloud-based product to the market. But on the other hand, we had these haters, these Luddites really that were trying to tear us down and telling us that we were irresponsible for bringing this technology to the profession.”

By Newton’s own admission, the dawn of AI stands to have much larger and far-reaching impacts than the onset of cloud-based technologies. With the increased possibilities comes even louder AI detractors and a greater need to practice caution.

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McNally and Rockwell demonstrated in their presentation that Canada has actually been a leader in AI ethics, guidelines, and regulation. It just hasn’t gotten very far.

The pan-Canadian AI strategy to spur AI research and adoption and Bill C-27 earned Canada a spot on an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development list, which McNally suggested is evidence of Canada’s international standing in the AI sector.

The bill is in the committee stage, which McNally said is known as a “clause-by-clause” review. The committee will review all elements of the legislation. The good news is that once the committee stage is finished, bills rarely change as they go to the Senate before royal assent.

The bad news is that, according to McNally, Canada’s political landscape — as an election looms — could slow the process further.

But the speed of the legislature is less important than its intent.

“I would flag the word responsible. If you want one phrase for the government’s approach, it is responsible AI,” said Rockwell.

After McNally discussed the state of the bill, Rockwell demonstrated how Canada’s approach to AI guidelines seems to be proceeding in a way that balances a safe rollout with an effective one.

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On Tuesday morning, news broke of two stories about AI, amounting to one step up and one step back. On the one hand, actress Scarlett Johansson released a statement addressing concerns about similarities between her voice and that of OpenAI’s latest ChatGPT platform, raising speculation that the program may have unlawfully used her voice. On the other hand, the European Union passed benchmark legislation regulating AI that the rest of the world will now mark its own AI regulations against.

While Canada works through its own legislation addressing AI, it will have to balance the promises of Newton’s growth as a disruptive technology with the reality of the disruption’s harm.

McNally said he thinks the bill could pass, but not without a list of changes.

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Twitter/X: @ZacharyDelaney

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