Ro­bots and AI need to be in­cluded in next cen­sus

The Recorder & Times (Brockville) - - OPINION - Howard Ramos is a pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at Dal­housie Univer­sity.­mardra­woh HOWARD RAMOS

On Fri­day, Sta­tis­tics Canada will close its pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion for the next cen­sus in 2021. As that date ap­proaches, the agency should be en­cour­aged to re­think Canada’s de­mo­graphic mix by con­sid­er­ing how ro­bots and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence (AI) will be a part of it.

By now, most Cana­di­ans have seen es­ti­mates of up to 42 per cent of jobs be­ing taken by ro­bots or AI. If those pro­jec­tions are cor­rect, this will mean a mas­sive up­heaval of not only the econ­omy but also Cana­dian so­ci­ety more gen­er­ally. It will po­ten­tially shrink the coun­try’s tax base, re­duce the power of the state, and fun­da­men­tally al­ter so­cial pol­icy across a wide range of ar­eas.

It is un­clear whether the loom­ing dis­rup­tion of the econ­omy will lead to au­tono­ma­tion — mech­a­niza­tion with a hu­man touch, whereby peo­ple am­plify tech­nol­ogy — or whether it will be au­to­ma­tion that sim­ply re­places hu­man work­ers.

If ex­ist­ing work­ers can­not adapt or are no longer needed, and pro­jec­tions are cor­rect — this will po­ten­tially mean a loss of $124 bil­lion, us­ing es­ti­mates from last year’s tax rev­enues. This leads to the question of who or what will pay taxes in an econ­omy driven by ro­bots and AI.

It also leads to ques­tion­ing how the state will main­tain it­self. A po­ten­tial loss of al­most half the tax base will have se­ri­ous reper­cus­sions for how the gov­ern­ment can main­tain and de­liver ser­vices to the coun­try. If it fails to do so, the gov­ern­ment risks be­com­ing ir­rel­e­vant in a new age of ro­bot­ics and AI.

De­spite the po­ten­tial for such enor­mous change, Cana­dian pol­i­cy­mak­ers and busi­nesses have been slow to ad­just, and pol­icy lags far be­hind. This is be­cause of a lack of sys­tem­atic data on the scale of ro­bot­ics and AI al­ready in­te­grated into the Cana­dian econ­omy.

This is an area where Sta­tis­tics Canada can play a role in help­ing Canada nav­i­gate its fu­ture. The next cen­sus cy­cle is the right time to se­ri­ously con­sider the role of ro­bots and AI in the coun­try’s de­mo­graphic makeup.

To do so, de­mog­ra­phers and pol­i­cy­mak­ers will have to get a firm un­der­stand­ing of ex­actly what ro­bots and AI are. Is a Roomba vac­uum cleaner a ro­bot or AI? How about arms used in auto plants, self-driv­ing cars, or Siri or Google in­ter­ac­tive sys­tems? Should each be con­sid­ered equally in pro­jec­tions of how they will af­fect Cana­dian so­ci­ety? These are ques­tions for so­cial sci­en­tists to ex­plore and pol­i­cy­mak­ers to con­sider.

Is the coun­try’s le­gal sys­tem up to the task of deal­ing with crimes by ro­bots and AI?

Be­yond count­ing ro­bots and AI, a de­mog­ra­phy of each means also con­sid­er­ing their growth tra­jec­to­ries and how those af­fect the hu­man pop­u­la­tion. If Moore’s Law, which says com­put­ing power dou­bles ev­ery 18 months, ap­plies to ro­bots and AI, dis­rup­tion is just around the cor­ner, not decades away. It may be time to start con­sid­er­ing how ro­bots and AI will af­fect all as­pects of Cana­dian so­ci­ety and not just the econ­omy, with growth of each in mind.

Is the coun­try’s le­gal sys­tem up to the task of deal­ing with crimes by ro­bots and AI? What should cur­ricu­lums look like for stu­dents who will live in a world where al­most half of cur­rent jobs will be ob­so­lete? Does it make sense to pur­sue eco­nomic im­mi­gra­tion in a so­ci­ety where the econ­omy will be dis­rupted? What are the es­thet­ics and cul­ture, or the or­der­ing prin­ci­ples, of a so­ci­ety that has ro­bots and AI as part of it? The root to an­swer­ing all these ques­tions lies in first sys­tem­at­i­cally know­ing and count­ing the tech­nol­ogy to es­ti­mate is growth.

Pol­icy de­ci­sions need to be based on what to­mor­row will look like, rather than what we know to­day. This is the ul­ti­mate power of de­mog­ra­phy and that be­gins with first count­ing what’s there.

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