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“Artificial Intelligence is Canada’s Game”


We recently sat down with canada@150 alumni Michael Karlin. In the podcast, he speaks to the foresight tools he learned in canada@150 and how it shaped the work that he does today looking at Artificial Intelligence and the Automation of work for Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat’s Chief Information Officer Branch, where he specializes in Digital Service Policy and Strategy.

In the interview he takes listeners into the future of work. He provokes listeners to think about the importance of foresight in designing policy that can ensure the political class is able to “run the ship far into the future”.

Transcript available below:


Welcome to Canada Beyond 150’s podcast series. We’re currently here with Michael Karlin a Policy Advisor with the Treasury Board of Canada where he specializes in digital services, policy and strategy.

So Michael tell us about yourself what is your current role in the Federal Public Service?

Well I’m an advisor. I work at the chief information officer branch at TBS. My primary role is the AI Policy Lead for the Government of Canada but as well I do other work in digital service.

Tell us about your career in the Canadian Public Service before you heard about canada@150?

I was fairly new to the public service. I had just started with Canada Border Services Agencies Cabinet Affairs Unit. It started to open my eyes to the possibility of government because it was a great place to work to see all the stuff coming through and all the policy development going on. It got me thinking about big picture government. So this program, it gave me an opportunity to explore that side of government more; to think about policy issues, cross-departmental policy issues, long-term thinking.

When you look back at your experience at canada@150. What are some of the memorable parts that stand out for you?

First of all, the conferences were amazing. It was like a particle accelerator or pressure cooker in a way. You got a lot of smart people together thinking about issues very intensely in a short period of time. The ideas coming out were really exciting. I saw that as the work progressed we worked together on these policy papers. We were in groups of ten. As the work was picking up and progressing we formed really strong friendships and networks. That continues to this day. You’re not going to make friends with all 150 participants. But I’m really friends with the people I worked with there.

When you look back and where you are today. Do you think canada@150 had an impact on you that changed the way that you work?

A hundred percent, I’m working on issues on Artificial Intelligence and Automation of Work. It’s a very forward thinking thing. And I am very fortunate to be working in an area where some of the stuff that we foresighted on I am able to work on today directly making it come to be.

Why do you feel tools like foresight and collaboration are important for Policy Innovation?

I mean extensively we don’t do things for one year of impact. We do things to nudge society in a certain direction. The reason that we exist in a Westminster Democracy is to think about things beyond one mandate. The political class are looking to us to make sure we continue to run the ship into the future. We need to perform that task. If we were only delivering policy for one mandate or two maximum, I don’t think that we are doing our job. I think foresight is integral to the reason why the public service exists.

We have about 90 public servants that have been selected. And we are going to be embarking on this experience called Canada Beyond 150. If you had any advice for them on how to make the most of this experience what would that be?

Definitely don’t concentrate on the final product. It’s not about the product it’s about the journey. It might be cliché to say but ultimately our final product was good. But what was better was the training and the ability to work remotely using the digital tools which was really ahead of its times. For this particular exercise definitely concentrate on how you’re working, the tools you’re developing and the networks you’re building and the final product you’re developing should be something you’re proud of.

What is the future of AI for Canada?

AI is Canada’s game. We introduced in the last budget the Pan Canadian AI strategy that’s to work with superclusters that have developed in Montreal, Toronto and Edmonton in particular but also in AI clusters popping up across the country. We have a ground swell of entrepreneurship and innovation here in Canada through Industry and Academia. The government really wants to learn from these experiences. So we’re going to be working very closely with them.

What do you see AI meaning for Socio-Economic Development in Canada?

I’m not going to lie I do think there will be profound social and economic changes brought by Artificial Intelligence and Automation at large. What makes AI different than from the automation of the past – like dumb robots – was it’s potential to replace tasks that are more advanced so affect white collar jobs. We definitely need to figure out pretty fast what those affects will be and work with academia and industry to figure out a way to minimize this. There is a lot of press around the potential for job losses brought on by AI and then you have on the other hand those soft selling it. I’m somewhere in the middle. We need to figure out these issues and what the future of work is. I think we can do that by working collaboratively across departments.

When you think about the future of the Public Service, what excites you most?

I’m starting to see the beginning of change that I heard about 8 to 10 years ago. For example, a change towards becoming a more flatter organization. To be more open to innovation. To react to social change faster, predict social changes and actually design policy for what’s anticipated to come. I really think that the future of the public service is bright. We’ve finally figured out that we’re not the only policy voice in the country. We’ve started to learn how to work better with civil society, academia and the private sector.

If any of the Canada beyond 150 participants wanted to reach out to you. What kind of mentorship could you provide them with?

Well, I’m a pretty nice guy. Otherwise I spend my days working collaboratively. The Government of Canada Digital Disruption White Paper on Artificial Intelligence is going to be developed sort of in the open. We’re going to keep everything on GCcollab. We’re going to be writing blog posts on Medium. This is going to be as open and collaborative as possible both within the government and industry. I’d be happy to share those experiences and best practices. Also on how to manage up and build comfort among senior management,  I have a lot of positive experience in helping senior management to relax to see the benefits of having an engaged staff that could work across sectors.

Thank you so much for coming in today Michael and speaking with us.

Policy Horizons Canada, also referred to as Horizons, is an organization within the federal public service that conducts strategic foresight on cross-cutting issues that informs public servants today about the possible public policy implications over the next 10-15 years.

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