Blink and you’ll get left behind.
The AI revolution is here and it’s changing the world faster than anybody could have predicted.
Whether that’s for better or worse depends on whom you ask. What’s undeniable is this — the only limitation on how AI will transform the world is us.
Geoffrey Hinton, the so-called grandfather of AI, issued warnings this year, sounding the alarm about the existential threat of AI.
In May 2023, he appeared in an article on the front page of The New York Times, announcing he had quit his job at Google to speak freely about the harm he believes AI will cause humanity.
“The way that we propose and strategize technologies rarely, if ever, turn out,” said Isabel Pedersen, author and professor at Ontario Tech University focusing on the social implications of emergent technologies.
If Hinton is having a come-to-Jesus moment, he might be too late. Over 100 Million people use ChatGPT, a form of AI using technology he invented. That’s on top of the way AI is already interwoven into practically everything we do online.
And while Toronto-based Hinton is one of the Canadian minds leading this industry — one which is growing exponentially — the circle of AI innovators remains small.
So small, in fact, that while filming for this story in Toronto’s Eaton Centre, our Global News team happened upon Hamayal Choudhry, founder and CEO of smartARM, the world’s first bionic arm for which AI uses cameras to dictate movement.
Unknowingly, we asked him for an interview about the latest release and quickly learned, this was no ordinary shopper.
Choudhry was in the store testing the glasses out for himself, curious to see if AI could be as big a disruptor in the world of glasses as he intends to make it in the world of prosthetics.
“The same way those glasses have tiny cameras in the frames, that’s what we’re doing for our prosthetic arms,” Choudhry said, in an informal interview in the mall concourse.
smartARM is just one of many examples of how AI is on the brink of revolutionizing virtually every facet of human existence. Canada is on the leading edge, utilizing what AI can do from healthcare and education to airlines and entertainment.
There are inherent risks with AI and a lack of regulation and oversight in Canada, but overall, AI is improving our daily lives in ways that may often remain undetectable.
Canada’s AI pioneering dates back to the 1970s, when researchers formed the world’s first national AI association.
The Canadian Artificial Intelligence Association (CAIAC) formerly known as the Canadian Society for the Computational Studies of Intelligence, held its first “official” meeting in 1973.
Its own mission statement says the CAIAC aims to “foster excellence and leadership in research, development and education in Canada’s artificial intelligence community by facilitating the exchange of knowledge through various media and venues.”
It held its first annual conference in 1976, three years before the American Association for Artificial Intelligence was founded.
“Conferences helped with collaboration and community-building, especially in those early days when remote work did not exist and even phone calls were expensive. When you look at the earlier proceedings, you will see a pool of talent that was leading the world in AI,” said Denilson Barbosa, current CAIAC president.
The society has had different publications over the years, including a magazine and newsletters, first published in 1974.
Its archive is a treasure trove of AI history. Its magazine debut in 1984 talks about the potential and the influence of AI: “It is predictable that, awakening to their new place in the sun, AIers be distracted by sycophants, charlatans, and barmecides. Does the AIer grow frustrated with misconceptions about AI? You bet we do.”
Barbosa is a professor of computing science at the University of Alberta. Speaking by phone from Edmonton, Barbosa acknowledged that while Canada is slow to fully integrate AI, conservative in investing and implementing new technologies, he’s looking forward to the possibilities of AI in learning in school or for personal growth, including AI in classrooms.
“The way we teach is fairly passive. Instructors have a huge influence on the success of students and control the pace of the process. It would be best to turn things around and let the students drive the process — they would work on their own, and when they got stuck, they would get help from an always-available AI,” Barbosa said.
“Human instructors would be there to oversee the process and provide extra help to those who need it the most.”
When most people think of AI, robots from movies — who can think for themselves — come to mind. That’s known as deep learning AI, found in the software of autonomous cars, facial recognition, mass surveillance and yes, some robots. It’s the AI that has the potential to think for itself and that scares a lot of people.
Then there’s the field where Canada is considered a leader: the broader technology of machine learning AI, which most people don’t realize we already use every day. It curates social media feeds, translates languages, detects fraudulent bank transactions, makes song and movie recommendations, and more. It’s driven by human input and our habits.
Under the umbrella of machine learning, is Generative AI. It generates new content that mimics the data it was trained on.
“Think of a program that has been trained with vast amounts of information, information that exists all over the Internet. And it develops an understanding and a representation of what this information is all about,” Deloitte Canada’s Jas Jaaj told Global News’ The New Reality.
“Generative AI allows you to tune the information in a way where now you can actually consume the information the way you want to based on your values, based on your preferences. And then you can ask all sorts of questions to be able to get things like recommendations, things like suggestions of what you may want to have for a meal.”
Most Canadians can’t tell what’s human or AI. A study released in October by the Canadian Journalism Foundation found that half of us are not confident in distinguishing the difference between social media content generated by AI compared with content created by humans.
This unknown is leading to a lot of fear and misinformation about what AI is and isn’t doing. But whether we’re ready, it’s poised to change nearly everything we do and Canada is already playing a leading role.
In 2017, the federal government put $125 million of funding into AI, the first country to have a national AI strategy. The funding helped to create three world-renowned institutes to guide development in AI research in Montreal, Edmonton, and Toronto, and put Canada among the top five nations in the field.
“For me, the biggest risk is not adopting AI and realizing its maximum potential,” said Deval Pandya, vice-president of AI engineering at Toronto’s Vector Institute, one of the institutes founded in 2017.
He’s personally bet on Canada’s future. Pandya, originally from India, joined Vector Institute nearly three years ago, after working in the U.S.
“I think it’s very bright. And if it wasn’t bright, I wouldn’t move to Canada,” Pandya said.
Vector Institute is an independent non-profit dedicated to AI research. It has partnerships with 20 university programs in Ontario with training focused on AI, providing startups with a steady stream of new workers.
“Last year, we graduated more than a thousand Vector-recognized master students. And what is very impressive is that 90 per cent of the students stay in Canada, in Ontario, after they graduate,” Pandya said.
You don’t have to look far from the Vector Institute to see AI’s evolution.
Jas Jaaj, a managing partner at Deloitte in Toronto who focuses on AI and data, believes AI will be to the 21st century what the steam engine was to the 18th century, what electricity was to the 19th century, and what personal computers were to the 20th century.
“You know what really happened in all of these major developments? Every major industry changed, societies changed,” Jaaj said.
Professional services firms like Deloitte help companies find the next big thing. And these days, it doesn’t get bigger than AI.
Global News got an exclusive look at one of the ways AI will change health care. It’s an AI nurse, assigned to newly discharged patients to help track their recovery care plan and progress.
It was created in partnership between Deloitte and The Ottawa Hospital and received positive feedback when it was rolled out in the testing phase.
Each AI nurse is unique to the patient. It has the information it requires to converse with a patient about their care and its skin tone, even the language and dialect it speaks, can be altered to put a patient at ease.
During the demo for Global News, the AI nurse asked: “Regarding your post-discharge medications, Tenzin and Lasix, do you have any questions or concerns about them, how to take them or any potential side effects?”
The responses given by the patient trigger another series of questions. It will ask if you’ve weighed yourself, how you’re feeling, and more, as a way to ensure post-op instructions are being followed. And if it’s interacting with a stubborn patient, it will push back.
“They could be a bit insistent in terms of saying, ‘Hey, you know what? You haven’t done what you were supposed to do, so get on with it,’” Jaaj said.
Most importantly, the AI nurse is smart enough to flag problems for a human nurse or doctor to intercede.
The goal of the AI nurse isn’t to replace human nurses, it’s to take tasks off their already full plates and allow them to perform higher-value work with more time. It can also lower readmission rates. Jaaj predicts 100 per cent of Canadian hospitals will begin to use AI in some way within the next few years.
Regardless of the goal, it doesn’t stop one of the biggest concerns about progress in integrating AI into the Canadian workforce: job losses.
“This is a hot topic in terms of the anxiety that some people have,” Jaaj said. “The way to think about it is not in a way by which it will replace workers. Rather, it will reshape the workforce as we move forward.”
While progress will have its casualties, Canada is very much in a position of relying on human input to use AI. AI can take on time-consuming tasks, freeing us up to solve more complicated problems.
That’s what Air Canada is doing, on a mission to overhaul and streamline its entire company by taking advantage of the power and efficiency AI creates. Its biggest challenge is tackling the thing we all hate most: delays.
“In terms of the complexity of getting our passengers safely to where they want to be on time, a lot of things have to go right,” said Bruce Stamm, Air Canada’s managing director of enterprise data and artificial intelligence.
“There are literally 60 things which need to go right for an aircraft to land on time. Only 30 of those do we actually control as an airline.”
When it works, the chaos of air travel seems like a synchronized symphony in the sky. Canada’s largest air carrier is timing the takeoffs and landings of more than 1,100 daily flights in such a way that 140,000 passengers get to where they want to be unhindered by delays or lost bags.
But the truth is, frustrations are all too common. Even a 10-minute delay of a flight at the beginning of the day can cause a ripple effect.
Nearly 28 per cent of Air Canada flights, or more than 8,700, landed late in October 2023, placing the company ninth out of 10 airlines on the continent in on-time performance, according to aviation data company Cirium.
In late October, Stamm’s team started using AI to optimize its scheduling and predict delays. The program uses historical data and looks at scheduling three to five years in advance. Instead of the old way of doing things, using theoretical predictions about flight times, cleaning, maintenance, and more, Air Canada is able to devise a more accurate schedule.
Global News got a first look at the company’s Montreal headquarters.
The software doesn’t seem like much — coloured boxes on a screen — but it churns through massive amounts of data, faster and more efficiently than a person could.
“AI and data are going to be part of our DNA just to do a lot more effective decision-making,” Stamm said.
Next year, Air Canada plans to use AI to modernize its maintenance schedule for its fleet of about 200 planes. It will take into consideration where planes and mechanics are located, ordering time for parts, and more. The best part? What currently takes people weeks to do will soon be done in about 15 minutes, allowing for work a computer can’t do to become the priority.
“Air Canada is embracing this, leveraging this to the better of our employees’ experience and ultimately our passengers’ experience,” Stamm said. “It’s awesome. And it’s also fun.”
While Canada’s largest corporations are harnessing new technology, small startups are also launching very quickly. In the last year, hundreds of Canadian AI startups have hit the market.
A couple of weeks after Global News met Choudhry, he and smartARM co-founder Evan Neff, invited the Global News’ crew to their Toronto office, a small area in a coworking building east of downtown, which also holds their first prototypes.
Choudhry started smartARM about four years ago, shortly after beating out 50,000 other inventors at a competition sponsored by Microsoft in 2018. He had learned that prosthetics were either cheap but clunky, or functional but expensive.
Neff tells Global News, smartARM’s goal is to enhance autonomy and accessibility in the prosthetic space.
Choudhry and Neff aren’t specifying their price point yet, Neff said current market prices range from about $30,000 to $200,000 making high-quality prosthetics inaccessible to roughly 95 per cent of the upper-limb different community.
“We aim to change this,” Neff said.
“For those with insurance or funding, smartARM will remain affordable, minimizing out-of-pocket expenses. For others, we’re pricing smartARM comparably to a smartphone or laptop, not a car.”
smartARM set out to design something affordable and remarkable.
It mimics human tendencies, like hand-eye coordination, holding items, carrying heavy objects and lifting delicate ones. Using AI, Choudry said the prosthesis will inherently “know” how to handle something — “just like the way you would look at an object … and grab it. You won’t necessarily think about how you wrap your fingers around it.”
smartARM isn’t for sale yet, with regulatory certifications and approvals pending. In the meantime, Choudhry and Neff are testing it on people with a limb difference, including former NFL player Shaquem Griffin.
Griffin was born with a rare condition forcing the amputation of his left hand when he was four years old. He made NFL history when he was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in 2018 and went on to play for the Miami Dolphins before retiring in 2022 after four seasons in the league.
Choudhry sent a private message to Griffin on Instagram late last year and it wasn’t long before Choudhry and Neff travelled to meet Griffin and his mother.
The first time he put on a smartARM and interacted with it, they were sitting down for dinner at a restaurant.
Choudhry recalls Griffin repeatedly picking up and putting down a glass of water, taking a drink, and passing it to different people at the table. Choudhry and Neff witnessed Griffin use his left hand for the first time as an adult.
“Shaquem has proven that having a limb difference doesn’t mean that you are any less capable of greatness,” Neff said.
“We want to stress that smartARM isn’t about necessity; it’s simply about empowering our users with more choices and independence. Watching Shaquem explore new possibilities with smartARM was a testament to our mission.”
smartARM also made its New York Fashion Week debut in 2023, showcased by Griffin at the Runway of Dreams, highlighting inclusivity through fashion and beauty.
“Just looking at their expressions and looking at how they interact with it so intuitively and naturally is inexplicably rewarding for us to see,” Choudhry said of the users testing smartARM. “You know, it makes coming in here and working every day not even really seem like work.”
Pedersen has been studying wearable technology for over 20 years. Even she is amazed at how fast AI has become embedded in our daily lives.
“People went from never experiencing AI themselves to being able to use it on their phones, to use it on their laptops, use it at work, use it at home,” she said.
“We’ve gone through this rapid process in a matter of weeks that in some ways other technologies took 100 years.”
In addition to her role as a professor at Ontario Tech University, Pedersen is the founding director of the Digital Life Institute. It’s an international research network studying the social implications of emergent digital technologies.
Pedersen said inventors are still developing and designing a future that hasn’t happened yet.
“We have to be careful of techno-solution-ism. For me to say that you’re going to have a technology that is going to solve these very difficult problems — it won’t,” Pedersen said.
“I do believe that we have to continue to move forward and try to design ethical outcomes at the earliest stages so that we can presuppose some of these harms that are ongoing that we might face.”
As with everything related to new technology, there are persistent concerns that AI is moving much faster than the guardrails being built for it.
The federal government has a framework for proposed legislation, but The Artificial Intelligence and Data Act won’t come into force before 2025. Federal Minister of Innovation, Science, and Industry, François-Philippe Champagne, told Global News the government wants to get it done right.
“There’s an acknowledgment that we need to deal with the concerns and the risks so that we can realize the opportunities. And in order to do that, we need framework, we need guardrails, so we build trust with people,” Champagne said.
But trust can be tricky. Until the act becomes law, the government released a voluntary code of conduct in late September for generative AI developers. In the absence of regulation, it is supposed to guide organizations to come up with an environment to self-regulate.
“It is incumbent on organizations and businesses themselves to not only wait for things like regulations and these types of directives coming in, but also go down the path of really understanding how they can self-regulate in the interim by educating themselves and learning about how this technology will really make a difference,” Jaaj said.
“At the end of the day, you have to take a multi-pronged approach to not be left behind while everyone else is going to be doing this anyway.”