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The time for Canadian businesses to adopt artificial intelligence is now

The rewards for doing so, and the penalties of not, are far too great to ignore

Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to be one of the biggest game-changers of our time, and Canada is poised to become a global leader in the field – but only if the right steps are taken and the moment is seized by businesses.

The digital development of AI, which is essentially machines assisting decisions and performing tasks that normally require human intelligence, is used across various industries from technology to the public sector.

It’s predicted to be one of the driving economic forces of the 21st century because of its enormous transformative potential.

“We use artificial intelligence just about every day; it saves time and frees us up to do what we would consider to be more important activities,” says Joyce Drohan, a partner and British Columbia leader for Omnia AI, Deloitte’s artificial intelligence and advanced analytics practice.

Everything from Google Maps to smart assistants like Siri and Alexa to recommendations on Amazon and TripAdvisor uses artificial intelligence. 

These prolific technologies help improve our lives by supporting our decision-making and driving greater efficiencies by reducing time spent on day-to-day processes so we can optimize our time and efforts.

The same benefits can be brought to companies to create a talent advantage, drive efficiencies to create value and reduce waste in competitive industries.

AI can help organizations maximize their investment in talent by automating manual processes that sift through mountains of data with machine intelligence. AI would make sense of the relevant patterns and pinpoint precise areas of interest, which would free up valuable talent to work on higher-order activities.

This enables an organization’s focus to be reframed around its biggest opportunities and challenges – generating value and saving time and money.

Investment challenges in AI

The problem, though, is that Canadian companies are falling behind when it comes to adopting AI.

A recent report by Deloitte found that only 16% of businesses in the country use AI technologies – something that hasn’t changed over the last four years, even though AI’s value and utility have been increasing exponentially during this same period.

Not enough companies are investing in AI and there is a lack of true leadership in the direction of the field, the report states.

“What we’ve found is that, in general, we have a lot of great research and a lot of great knowledge, but this doesn’t get applied, as most organizations haven’t adopted AI as part of an overarching strategy for their businesses,” says Drohan.

There is a huge amount of talent around the research and development of AI technologies in B.C., particularly from young university graduates in the area, but they struggle to find good jobs to set roots in B.C. and Canada broadly because of a general lack of investment in AI by businesses and government.

“We end up exporting those people to organizations in other countries to work for organizations like Apple, Facebook and Twitter and then buying back our own talent and innovation,” says Drohan.

Poised to be leaders

Losing talent and innovation to other countries is a particularly detrimental issue, she emphasizes, because of how well suited Canada is to be a leader in the development of AI and to create an environment for its development to flourish.

“Canada is ideally situated to be a leader because our national culture and neutral politics have attracted world-class researchers in AI. This also ideally suits us to influence the ethics around how to develop it and use it responsibly,” says Drohan.

British Columbia, for example, has all the necessary pieces for AI to really take off – the research strength, the talent pool and a vibrant startup community – but, by itself, that’s not enough.

True leadership in the sector is key, and that comes only through embracing AI and adopting the technologies as a key part of organizational strategy.

“Business leaders and public-sector leaders need to start looking at AI as a viable option and a real solution to the business questions that they have, instead of looking at what they have done in the past, because that won’t be enough to be competitive,” Drohan says.

Understanding the benefits of AI

Drohan points to two main reasons behind the lag in AI in the country: a lack of trust in AI and a lack of understanding about what it is.

For example, the recent Deloitte study found that 86% of Canadians said they don’t ever use AI-powered tools despite the fact that 76% of them use a smartphone with AI-enabled virtual assistant programs and mapping software.

This points to a disconnect between perceptions of AI and the reality of how the technology is already being used, and this has led to Canadian businesses not fully understanding the benefits of AI.

“We need to encourage businesses to be more artificial intelligence friendly because otherwise, we won’t have a seat at the global table,” says Drohan.

Despite the lag in investment and application of AI, Drohan says she is hopeful there is still time to catch up and have a role in the direction of AI.

“It’s increasingly clear that AI will fundamentally reshape the way we operate – in our businesses, governments and everyday lives. The time is now, not five years from now, to dive in. We have a responsibility as business leaders and public-sector leaders to help guide the future of AI. The rewards for doing so, and the penalties of not, are far too great to ignore.”