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Demystifying Artificial Intelligence

Trending Technology05-31-2023

Artificial intelligence (AI) is no longer a technology of the future. It’s here, and it’s changing the way we live, work, and interact with the world. From self-driving cars to personalized recommendations on e-commerce sites, AI is becoming increasingly integrated in our lives.

As a public servant, you may wonder why you should care about this technology. The answer is simple: AI has the potential to transform the way government operates and the results it can generate. For example, AI can help deliver services more effectively, strengthen the decision-making process, and increase overall efficiency. Let’s explore the basics of AI and the ethical considerations you need to be aware of so that you use it responsibly.

The basics

Over the past few decades, we have seen tremendous progress in AI, with machines now able to analyze speech and images, understand language and even beat grandmasters in chess.

AI has been a topic of interest and research since the 1950s, and over the years, our understanding and what we define as AI has evolved significantly. For example, the electronic calculator was introduced in the 1960s and was considered a remarkable technological advancement. The calculator, a tool performing mathematical calculations quickly and accurately but still in its infancy, could have been perceived at the time as a form of AI.

Rocket ship taking off through a laptop on a yellow background.

Just a decade later, in 1971, microprocessors were invented, making it possible to create small and powerful computers and opening the gate to unlimited possibilities. The calculator became affordable and common in the classroom. We can only imagine what the future holds for us.

AI is an area of computer science that develops algorithms and systems that perform tasks that typically require human intelligence, such as perception, reasoning, learning and decision-making.

Rather than being a single entity, AI is more accurately represented as a network of interconnected fields and subfields. This means that there is no single AI technology, but rather a range of different techniques and approaches that are used to solve different problems. They include the following fields:

  • Natural language processing is how computers analyze, understand and generate human language. It is used for translation of text from one language to another.
  • Machine learning is how to program a computer to learn from experience. It learns to solve a task by taking data, identifying patterns and making decisions, thereby improving over time and making better decisions.
  • Deep learning is a type of machine learning that uses artificial neural networks to recognize complex patterns of large data and make predictions based on it. Neural networks mimic the structure and function of the human brain so that the computer learn things and make decisions in a humanlike manner. One example of deep learning is image recognition, where the AI can learn to distinguish different things, such as images of different types of animals, with high accuracy.
  • Computer vision enables machines to identify, interpret and understand visual information. This involves the AI processing and analyzing visual data from the world and using this information to make decisions or take actions. Some examples of computer vision include facial recognition, object detection and tracking, medical image analysis, autonomous vehicles and augmented reality.
  • Have you heard of or used OpenAI's ChatGPT—how about Dall-E? Then you are familiar with generative AI. It is a branch of AI that involves training models to generate new and original data that is similar to the data it was trained on. The AI models can generate images, music, text and even entire virtual environments.

While AI and robotics are related, they are two entirely different fields. Robotics refers to the design, construction and operation of robots with the goal of performing tasks efficiently, safely and accurately.

AI: A catalyst for government transformation

Silhouette of a person jumping from the wooden cube with an idea symbol to the wooden cube with a goal symbol.

When AI systems are properly and ethically designed and integrated, they can make a positive contribution to government activities, including in research, the policy cycle and policy formation lens, and program operations. Here are some ways that AI can be integrated into government operations:

  • AI can free up public servants’ time by performing repetitive and time-consuming tasks.
  • AI can answer client enquiries so that some services are always available; chatbots can also answer client enquiries, which can reduce the number of calls to a service.
  • AI can be used to better understand client behaviour patterns; the data can be used to better align the clients’ needs and improve services.
  • AI systems can analyze data and uncover hidden trends and patterns, which can provide new insights to employees and management; these insights provide an improved understanding of complex issues and support better decision-making.

Looking ahead, the future of AI is exciting and full of possibilities. But as these technologies continue to evolve and mature, it is important to consider their risks and take steps to address them.

Ensuring a responsible future

As AI becomes more advanced, there is a greater risk that it may, even unintentionally, be misused, perpetuate inequality or exacerbate existing societal problems.

Some worry that AI could lead to job losses, as machines replace human workers in many industries. Others fear that AI could be used for nefarious purposes, such as autonomous weapons or mass surveillance. We can broadly classify AI risks into the following categories:

  • Technical risks such as programming errors, design flaws and system failures. They create new security vulnerabilities, amplify discrimination and existing biases, or produce unexpected outcomes.
  • Societal risks impacting people's lives. They include privacy breaches and increasing levels of polarization, marginalization, discrimination, job displacement and economic inequality.
  • Ethical risks, including the autonomy and accountability of AI systems with regards to human values and rights.

To address these concerns, it is essential that public servants develop a better understanding of AI and its impact on society. Public servants play a critical role in ensuring that AI solutions retained by the federal government are developed and used in an ethical, responsible and transparent way.

Why do you need to know about this?

AI is rapidly becoming a critical part of everyday life, from the virtual assistants that we use on our phones to the algorithms that predict traffic patterns. As with any transformative technological advancement, it intrigues, raises questions and creates concerns. As public servants, a better understanding of AI is critical to effectively develop, deploy, manage, and regulate these technologies in ethical, responsible, and transparent ways.

Before you go, some food for thought

  1. Take a moment to think about occurrences of AI in your day-to-day life. Can you give one example?
  2. How can AI help you perform the tasks you do on a regular basis?
  3. If you use or plan to use AI in your work, what measures have you put in place to ensure that the technology is used ethically and responsibly?

Consult these Canada School of Public Service resources

Mohamed Loukrati

Mohamed Loukrati

Moh talks about data literacy, AI and emerging technology. | Moh discute de la littératie des données, de l'IA et des technologies émergentes.


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