Canadian experts urge Parliament to pass AI law fast

Canada should pass the Liberal government’s proposed legislation to regulate artificial intelligence in a few weeks, 75 AI researchers and startups say in an open letter.

“We ask our political representatives to strongly and urgently support AIDA (the Artificial Intelligence Data Act),” the letter says. “While it is possible to argue for improvements, we feel the current proposal is directionally sound and successfully balances the protection of Canadians and the imperative for innovation. Crucially, it puts forward a legislative
framework for AI that will be supported by regulations and standards, making it agile enough to adapt to new capabilities and applications of AI as it continues to evolve.

“The pace at which AI is developing now requires timely action. Unless parties work collaboratively to adopt AIDA before the summer, we are looking at significant delays before we have a regulatory framework that guides companies and protects Canadians.
In short, the window is rapidly closing, and further postponing of action would be drastically out-of-sync with the speed at which the technology is being developed and deployed.”

Among AIDA’s goals is to prohibit the making available for use of an artificial intelligence system if its use causes serious harm to individuals or harm to their interests.

The letter comes as some international technology experts, alarmed at the enthusiasm ChatGPT has achieved since its release in November, issued a call for a six-month ban on developing generative AI systems until questions have been answered about their ability to create disinformation and take away jobs.

Among those signing that letter was Yoshua Bengio, founder and scientific director of Mila, Quebec’s AI institute, who is also backing the Canadian letter.

Separately the federal privacy commissioner has launched an investigation into the possible use by ChatGPT of the personal information of Canadians without permission.

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If Parliament wants to pass AIDA without significant amendments, it will have to radically accelerate its schedule. First, the legislation (C-27) is married to an overhaul of the federal private sector privacy law, the proposed Consumer Privacy Protection Act. Second, that large piece of legislation hasn’t yet been referred to a committee for detailed study. Third,  AIDA isn’t whole; as written now, the government would have to pass a number of regulations before it could be implemented, including the appointment of an AI data commissioner to enforce the regulations.

In January, Toronto privacy lawyer Barry Sookman of the McCarthy Tetrault law firm wrote this detailed analysis of AIDA with a long list of suggested changes.

Sookman is not the only expert with concerns. “The AIDA is deeply flawed, and the lack of [public] consultation is profoundly disturbing,” wrote University of Ottawa law professor Teresa Scassa, who is Canada research chair in information law, in a post last month.

In an interview this morning, Scassa complained that too many of the holes in AIDA are left to be filled by unspecified regulations. For example, the legislation is aimed at so-called “high-impact” AI systems, but the definition will be in the regulations passed by the cabinet. “Parliament is being asked to sign a blank cheque,” she said.

While the government argues leaving things to regulations will make the legislation agile, to meet changes as AI matures, Scassa said that’s not necessarily true. “The regulation-making process is not particularly agile.”

“I don’t disagree with the signatories to the letter that there is a need to regulate AI,” she added. “I think it’s an urgent need. The question is whether this bill is the right bill. It was introduced in June of 2022. It was a big surprise to most people. There was no prior consultation. And it set out a framework that leaves the substance of the law to regulation. So it’s very hard to read this bill and really know what it’s about.”

Also in response to the call from Canadian experts, University of Ottawa internet law professor Michael Geist called for the government to start with a fresh sheet of paper. “AIDA may be well-meaning and the issue of AI regulation critically important,” he wrote today in a blog, “but the bill is limited in principles and severely lacking in detail, leaving virtually all of the heavy lifting to a regulation-making process that will take years to unfold. While no one should doubt the importance of AI regulation, Canadians deserve better than virtue signalling on the issue with a bill that never received a full public consultation.” 

The letter from Canadian AI supporters emphasizes that regulating AI supports innovation and economic growth.

“Providing a practical and robust legal framework will enable Canadian businesses to operate in alignment with forthcoming requirements in many other jurisdictions including Europe, the U.K., and the U.S,” the letter says. “And should Canada be amongst the first countries to adopt its legislation, it will send a strong signal to businesses across the world that they can and should turn to Canada and to Canadian companies if they want to develop or procure trustworthy and responsible AI systems that uphold human rights and protect the well-being of its users.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of ITWorldCanada.com and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including ITBusiness.ca and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@] soloreporter.com

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