Machine Learning’s Impact on the Future of Canada’s Workforce
- Canada needs a cohesive education strategy that implements work-integrated learning into the curriculum across all universities.
- The most important skill for the future workforce is the ability to learn and be adaptive.
- The government and large corporations should procure from Canadian companies who struggle to find their first customer, launch a product or commercialize intellectual property in Canada.
The Prime Minister must set a bold vision to make Canada the best place in the world to work in artificial intelligence. We must put in place policies that train the next generation of Canadians and build a strategy around data, the talent pipeline, and commercialization so that we can keep wealth and jobs in Canada.
What are the biggest forces shaping the future of work and skills development in Canada?
You can see just by looking around how technology is transforming every industry, and it means that Canada needs to change from a resource-based economy to one that actually adds value and is digital-first and focused on the intangible economy.
Second, environmental, social, and governance (ESG) needs to be at the core of everything we do, and there are a growing number of institutional asset managers—so the big funds with the big money—that are focused on this. We have so many great things within this country, but frankly, we do not fully tell the story when it comes to ESG.
How will these forces require stakeholders in our economy—governments, employers, schools, employees and professionals—to adapt?
The most important area is around culture and our mindset towards how we interact with one another.
The biggest area we could change is work-integrated learning. The number one thing we could do would be to have a tighter system of communication so that we are actually putting people to work and understanding what the needs are for a startup or large corporation. That interaction and those collisions are happening more frequently.
“The biggest area we could change is work-integrated learning.”
We have the exact model right in our backyard. When you look at the University of Waterloo and what they have done, there is a reason why Waterloo graduates are sought after in Silicon Valley. From an entrepreneur’s perspective who is making those hiring decisions, the resumes from Waterloo are unbelievable because even an undergrad with a four-year degree has amazing experiences with multinationals, startups or a local Canadian company. What if, as a country, we made every university like Waterloo? What if we actually got together, with support from government, non-profits, and startups, and thought of a more cohesive strategy for bringing in work experiences as part of our education system?
How will machine learning impact how Canadians work in the future? What are some of the opportunities and threats that come with this technology?
Machine learning is going to be the most disruptive technology in our generation. It will affect the way we work in the same way that the internet affected communication, and we are just in the early innings of the change that is going to happen.
The biggest misconception that people have is they see the Hollywood version of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. They see that dystopian robotic scenario; what data scientists would call artificial general intelligence. The vast majority of machine learning projects today, frankly, are very, very narrow and are about improving specific business processes.
The majority of the time, the projects we are working on still have a human component. We are really building tools to help professionals make better decisions or otherwise get rid of the grunt work in their job that they actually do not like to do anyway. Once we understand and realize that this is not so scary, data scientists come together with those subject matter experts and the discussion becomes how to build the next generation of tools. That is where it gets exciting in terms of the opportunity for Canada within machine learning.
“The majority of the time, the projects we are working on still have a human component.”
Machine learning is the ultimate in transformation because it is a horizontal enabler that can affect any business that has a significant amount of data. Ultimately, all businesses and governments have significant amounts of data. When it comes to machine learning, you can see the results in the Big Tech firms from Silicon Valley. But we think every industry will change over the coming years—whether it is agriculture or energy—and the most traditional industries in the world all generate significant amounts of data. When you think of AI as a horizontal enabler and not an industry-specific category onto itself, all of a sudden you realize that the opportunities for change are practically endless.
The largest opportunity for Canadians and for Canadian entrepreneurs is at the intersection of AI and health. We have some unique situations where because of the single payer system, at least on paper, all the data resides in one system and we should be able to access that. I say “should” because it is not so easy in real life. But we have a very diverse, multicultural population, and we have data sets that are not as fragmented as you would see south of the border. We should be a world leader in solutions for AI and health, and I think we will be.
“The largest opportunity for Canadians and for Canadian entrepreneurs is at the intersection of AI and health.”
There is some red tape and regulatory issues that make it difficult to access data, but that comes back to the ESG question. We need to have a dialogue with society so that everyone knows we are not trying to violate their privacy. Looking at aggregate, anonymized data in an ethical way can lead to better treatment pathways, improve the life of the patient, and save taxpayer dollars for the health system. You genuinely can have your cake and eat it too, but we need to get beyond fear and have a conversation on ethical AI in health so Canada can become a world leader.
What skills must Canada focus on developing within our future workforce?
The most important thing is the ability to learn how to learn and to be adaptive. When we see our teams together, the most successful ones combine domain expertise with data science. The ideal project has a business analyst, a business development person that helps get access to the data, the data wranglers, the core data scientists, the machine learning modellers, and the software engineers that work in combination with them. You have all of these skill sets, but they need to meet in the middle, bring different perspectives, and communicate—that is absolutely critical. However, this will probably change in the next five to 10 years as the technology matures.
“The most important thing is the ability to learn how to learn and to be adaptive.”
If we can build a resilient youth that understand adaptation and are open to micro-credentialing that would help our workforce. This whole idea of being finished with learning after you get a degree does not mesh with the real world. Those who come in want to continue to learn and build their skills, and that is as important as anything done in university.
Has entrepreneurship and the skills needed to succeed as an entrepreneur changed in the last two decades since you founded Investopedia?
I do not think it ever changes, there are core fundamentals. The amount of opportunity today is far greater than it was back in 1999. Back then, if you wanted to start a company, the amount of capital you needed and the technical skills to put that into place was pretty significant, and you saw the number of companies that raised a ton of money and then had flameouts.
Today, if you have a couple good people and a good idea, with these cloud technology platforms, you could be up and running and put out a prototype in a short time at almost no cost. In that way, the world has become more accessible—but it is a double-edged sword. You are competing against more people from around the world, but on the other hand, your market is not limited to Canada.
One of the best things we did at Investopedia was not limit ourselves to the Canadian market, because there is a market south of us that is 10 times our size. Would you rather be a decent player down there or the top player in Canada’s market which is 10% of the size? If you take that analogy and multiply it across Asia and Europe, the opportunity for entrepreneurs is phenomenal.
How should stakeholders collaborate to identify and cultivate the skills our future workforce and industries will need?
There is going to be a reinvention of the post-secondary education system post-COVID. Do we need the same number of colleges across the country? Does every college in Alberta, Ontario or Quebec need to offer a business diploma? How will online change this? There needs to be a rethinking where we consider whether we would rebuild this system in the same fashion if we had to start again. These are complicated questions which will affect a lot of people, but as a country we need to do that.
“There is going to be a reinvention of the post-secondary education system post-COVID.”
The first tangible idea is work experience learning. If Canadian universities thought like the University of Waterloo where students combine school with work experience, and we marshal society—startups, large organizations and government—to reorganize universities this way, it would change the face of the country.
But there is another idea that would be an easy change if we get our act together: procurement. This is both procurement by the government and the largest corporations in the country. Sometimes we deride other politicians for encouraging citizens to buy American, but the fact is that others try to take care of their own first. This is not to say we should choose solutions that are not a good fit, especially in the government, but if you look at healthcare as an example—why do we not create these sandboxes where researchers and entrepreneurs can commercialize their products in Canada? I hear this story over and over again, whether it is in healthcare or oil and gas.
Right now, Canada is a very tough place to find your first customer, to launch your product, or to commercialize intellectual property. We need a strategy built around that because that is how we are going to launch the next Blackberry or Shopify. This could play a huge role in our development and it is what other countries have been doing for decades. We need to park our Canadian politeness aside and focus on building here first, while still maintaining our trade agreements. There is a complexity to this, but if we focus on procurement and Canada first it will unleash a ton of innovation.
What is your pitch on how to improve the competitiveness of Canada’s workforce?
Prime Minister, many Canadians do not know that we are world leaders in terms of academic research for artificial intelligence and machine learning. We punch way above our weight class thanks to investments made by governments across the country over the last 20 years. We are also gaining respect around the world for our tech ecosystems in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
I encourage you to set a bold vision to make Canada the best place in the world to work in AI from the largest corporations to government, but especially in startups. Put in place the policies that allow us to train the next generation of Canadians and make Canada the place where startups can be created. Let us build a strategy around data, the pipeline for talent from our universities and the policies to commercialize so we can keep wealth and jobs here in Canada.