Canadian PM: People are anxious about tech – we need to empower them

Written by Sam Trendall on 12 November 2018 in News

At GovTech Summit in Paris, Justin Trudeau speaks of need for government to ensure technology provides a ‘positive alternative’

Credit: PA

In the face of citizens’ concerns about fake news and artificial intelligence, governments need to ensure they are providing a “positive alternative”, according to Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau.

Speaking at the opening of the GovTech Summit being hosted today in Paris by public sector technology venture capital firm Public, Trudeau said that “a lot of people are anxious” about the impact of increasing digitisation and automation. It is crucial for digital government leaders to make sure those people do not feel disenfranchised by technology, he added.

“A lot of citizens are feeling uncertain about what the future is going to be like,” Trudeau said. “One of the things we have to do is reassure people that innovation is not just going to make their life easier, but that it is going to empower them in ways that [ensure] they will feel part of the world. The focus needs to be on bringing people along, rather than challenging them – from a government perspective that is much more important.”

Trudeau believes that, to effectively combat the malign use of social media and online disinformation, government must use the same platforms to promote positivity and inclusion – rather than simply redirecting people’s anger.

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“We have to make sure we are enhancing our democracies, rather than undermining them,” he said. “We need to empower people, we need to give them faith in political discourse… [and ask] how we use the same kind of tools in a positive way to counter the negative [influences] out there.” 

He added: “We have to give people a positive alternative. Because, if it ends up as a screaming match, whoever is nastier will win. It is easier to push someone into being angry; it is harder to pull them into being positive and earnest and involved.”

While legislation plays a part in ensuring people’s safety in the online world, it is also important that government encourages “citizens to be thoughtful” and educates them about potential harms and how best to avoid them.

“[It is like] if you think you can behave however you want on the road and the traffic laws will protect you,” he said. “The same is true in the virtual world.”

The Canadian PM said that, for his and other governments, “there is a need to set up a framework for AI for good”. He acknowledged that developing such a legislative and regulatory framework would take time, but claimed that the long-term benefits of doing so would outweigh any short-term loss of momentum.

Ultimately, Trudeau characterised the choice to embrace technology as a decision about whether or not to “protect a status quo” with which many are comfortable, or strive for something better and wholly inclusive.

He said: “Canada has made its choice to dive into the future with confidence and optimism.”

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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