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Spotting a neighbour digging in his backyard was highly unusual in our part of Calgary. The homeowner was worried about nuclear war, and decided to dig a bomb shelter capable of surviving such an apocalypse. Others on the street pondered similar action.

It was 1959, just a couple of years before the Cuban missile crisis, but the fear of all-out warfare was enough to cast a pall over the age.

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Watching the movie Oppenheimer brought back those childhood memories and the feelings of helplessness so many of us felt.

All that is now history, but a new field of research and technology has emerged whose unleashed power has the potential to radically define civilization, for good or ill. Artificial Intelligence – AI – has transformed from a sense of common mission to benefit the world into a financially lucrative endeavour that could thrust us into an unknown future.

Most of us have opinions about AI that aren’t fully formed. Some already have incorporated AI into their business, while others have experimented with platforms such as ChatGPT or Microsoft’s Bing. Predictions are AI will transform much of what we know of the world and how we interact with it and with one another within a few years.

AI is something we’ve been hearing about for years. First developed in 1956, its capabilities have expanded continually. A brilliant technology that could refine or ruin the world is developing in plain sight, and we have little idea what to do about it.

Every month seems to bring about a new breakthrough in AI technology and we are losing sight of for what it was once intended. Similar to social media platforms, which initially were designed to facilitate open, free communication but went on to expose the vulnerabilities of privacy, AI has the potential to take away our very humanity if we  choose not to support public policy efforts to oversee it.

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We’re not talking about driverless cars or robots that clean. This is about the capacity to unilaterally change our identity, to choose what news we see, or to launch wars that could put us back to the Stone Age. We simply can’t permit such power to stride unregulated into our collective future.

We are two weeks away from Labour Day, and nothing has been more pernicious about AI than its potential to make work meaningless. Of course, it has the ability to enhance our individual and collective employment tasks, but this doesn’t seem to be the way we are heading.  Lebanese-Iraqi-British architect and satirist Karl Sharro wrote in a recent blog: “What has AI given us? Humans doing the hard jobs for minimum wage, while robots write our poetry and paint our masterpieces, is not he future I wanted.”

AI is a contributor to a world of persistent unemployment and an alarming growth in income equality. We appear to have no clear policy options on either of these matters. We are human, and part of that identity is our inability to know the future. But we can shape it. Currently, markets can’t keep up with technological developments. We must slow such advances down to a pace we can manage without throwing employment under the bus.

Labour Day is nothing like it was even two decades ago. Without work, we not only lose our productivity but our dignity. How we handle AI will reveal whether or not we have learned that lesson.

Glen Pearson is co-director of the London Food Bank and a former Liberal MP for London North Centre.

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