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Ottawa is investing $50 million in the federal budget to hedge against job-stealing AI

OTTAWA — Worried about artificial intelligence coming to your work? That includes the federal government — enough to set aside at least $50 million for worker skills retraining.

OTTAWA — Worried about artificial intelligence coming to your work? That includes the federal government — enough to set aside at least $50 million for worker skills retraining.

One of the key promises in the federal budget released Tuesday was $2.3 billion in investments aimed at boosting the adoption of the technology and the artificial intelligence industry in Canada.

But beyond that was the promise to invest $50 million over four years “to support workers potentially impacted by AI.” Workers in “potentially disrupted sectors and communities” will receive new skills training through the Sectoral Workforce Solutions Program.

“There is a significant transformation of the economy and society around artificial intelligence,” said Joel Blit, associate professor of economics at the University of Waterloo.

Some jobs will be lost, some will be created, “but there will be a transition period that could be somewhat chaotic.”

While jokes about robots taking over jobs predate the emergence of generative AI systems in late 2022, the widespread availability of systems like ChatGPT made these fears real for many, even as workers across industries began integrating the technology into their workday.

In June 2023, a briefing note for Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland warned that the impact of generative AI “will be felt across all sectors and around 40 percent of all working hours could be affected.”

“Banking, insurance and energy appear to have greater automation potential compared to other sectors,” says the note, obtained by accessing and citing information from Accenture.

“This could have significant implications for employment and skills requirements.”

The budget only mentions the “creative industry” as an affected sector that will be covered by the program. In February, Canada’s TV, film and music industries asked parliamentarians for protection from AI, saying the technology threatens their livelihoods and reputations.

Finance Canada did not respond to questions about what other sectors or types of jobs would be covered by the program.

“The creative industries were used as an illustrative example and were not intended as an exclusion from other affected areas,” deputy finance spokesperson Caroline Thériault said in a statement.

In an interview earlier this year, Bea Bruske, president of the Canadian Labor Congress, said unions representing actors and directors are deeply concerned about how their likenesses or their work could be used by AI systems. But the “reality is that we need to look at the implications of AI in all jobs,” she said.

Blit explained that large language models and other generative AI can write, think of new ideas and then test those ideas, analyze data and generate computer programming code, music, images and video.

Those who will be affected are individuals in white-collar professions, such as those working in marketing, healthcare, law and accounting.

In the longer term, “it’s actually quite difficult to predict who will be affected by this,” he said. “What’s going to happen is that entire industries and entire processes are going to be reimagined around this new technology.”

AI is a problem “across all sectors, but certainly administrative and customer service jobs are more vulnerable,” Hugh Pouliot, a spokesperson for the Canadian Union of Public Employees, said in an email.

The federal government has used AI in nearly 300 projects and initiatives, according to new research published earlier this month.

According to Viet Vu, manager of economic research at Dais at Toronto Metropolitan University, the impact of AI on workers in a sector such as the creative industries does not have to be negative.

“That’s only the case if you adopt it irresponsibly,” he said, noting that creative professionals have been using new digital tools in their work for years.

He noted that only four percent of Canadian companies use any form of artificial intelligence or machine learning. “And so we’re not really there yet before these border models and border technologies will have an impact.

When it comes to how AI will impact the job market, it’s more useful to think about what types of tasks technology can perform better than whether it will replace entire jobs, Vu said.

“A job is made up of so many different tasks that sometimes even if a new technology comes along and 20 to 30 percent of your work can be done using AI, you’re still left with that 60 to 70 percent,” he said .

“So it’s rare that (an) entire occupation is actually wiped out because of technology.”

Finance Canada also did not respond to questions about what new skills employees would learn.

Vu said it makes sense to focus on two types of skills when retraining: computational thinking, or understanding how computers work and make decisions, and skills that deal with data.

There isn’t an AI system in the world that doesn’t use data, he said. “And so if we can actually understand how data is put together and how data is used, even using some basic data analytics skills, we’ll go a long way.”

But given the scale of change AI technology will bring, critics say much more than $50 million will be needed.

Blit said the money is a good first step but won’t be “close to enough” when it comes to the scale of the coming transformation, which will be comparable to globalization or the adoption of computers.

Valerio De Stefano, Canadian research chair in innovation law and society at the University of York, agrees that more resources will be needed.

“The number of jobs can be reduced to such an extent that retraining is insufficient,” and the government should look at “forms of unconditional income support, such as basic income,” he said.

The government should also consider requiring AI companies to “contribute directly to the payment of any social initiative that cares for people who lose their jobs due to technology” and to be “employers who use AI to reduce labor costs and increase profits increase, ask to do the same’.

“Otherwise, society will end up subsidizing technology companies and other businesses because they increase profits without giving back enough for the technology to benefit us all.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 21, 2024.

Anja Karadeglija, The Canadian Press