The Cambridge Analytica scandal is sending a chill through Canada’s artificial intelligence (AI) community, with some players worried that public concerns about privacy could threaten a sector that relies heavily on data.
“It cannot stop. Everything, all the forces have aligned. The right investments have been made. Data needs to be available,” said Foteini Agrafioti, chief science officer for RBC and head of Broealis AI, RBC’s artificial intelligence research lab. “It’s no time to back down, just because we hear problem cases in the media.”
That sentiment was echoed by Kevin Peesker, president of Microsoft Canada. He said the “wake-up call” on personal privacy is a good thing, but people need to understand the benefits of AI too, and he warned about the downside of too much regulation.
“I think it’s impossible to legislate for everything without having significant negative consequences that constrain,” Peesker said.
“There’s a benefit from aggregating the data.”
Both Peesker and Agrafioti were speaking on a panel discussing AI issues Thursday morning at the Public Policy Forum Canada Growth Summit in Toronto.
AI is one of the hottest topics in the Canadian tech world right now, but the technology relies entirely on huge amounts of data.
That data is fed into computers, which can then “learn” to perform a specific task by running through potential scenarios over and over again.
Canada is a world leader in this kind of work, and it’s an area the government wants to grow.
But right now, the tech world is grappling with a privacy backlash and prospects of increased government regulation over data usage in the wake of the Facebook – Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Cambridge Analytica reportedly obtained the data connected with about 87 million people on Facebook and used the information to attempt to psychologically profile users, ultimately working to influence the American presidential election in favour of Donald Trump.
In the wake of that news breaking in March, Facebook has made changes to its platform which limits the abilities of applications to access user data, and governments are responding to calls for regulation to control how corporations collect and use personal data.
This makes the Cambridge Analytica scandal of particular interest for Louis Roy, president of Optel Group co-chair of SCALE.AI, the Quebec-based supercluster, which will focus on AI powered supply chains.
Roy said he believes some day companies will actually write cheques to people for their personal data, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal is a step in that direction.
“You know, those companies were making tons of money on the backs of their customers, and what did they get?” Roy said.
“You should own your data, and say: ‘Well, OK it’s my data, pay me.’”
Government regulations will probably not be a major factor in the changing landscape for AI and personal privacy, because things are just moving too fast, Roy said.
Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains was also at the Public Policy Forum summit, talking about the government’s superclusters plan. Bains wouldn’t specify what the government might do to help protect Canada’s AI sector, but he said it’s aware of the issue.
“That’s why we’re coming forward with a data strategy,” he said. “How do we unlock the potential for many companies, particularly among the small- and medium-sized companies that have data but don’t understand or realize the potential?”
Bains said the government will announce a consultation plan “in the coming months” after which he’ll be in a better position to say when the data strategy will be done.