June 7, 2023
UCalgary researchers talk artificial intelligence and epidemiology on Parliament Hill
It’s not every day that a researcher gets to sit down for a chat with federal cabinet ministers and members of Parliament.
Over the last few months, University of Calgary researchers Dr. Hadis Karimipour and Dr. Anna Funk, both PhD, have took part in workshops and training sessions through the Canadian Science Policy Centre in preparation for what they felt was an opportunity of a lifetime.
A total of 38 delegates, including Karimipour and Funk, were chosen to go to Ottawa on May 1-2 for Science Meets Parliament 2023, an event that gave them the opportunity to speak with interested politicians about their experiences and research, and the role they can play in developing policies and practices.
Subject matter experts
While they come from different backgrounds and research fields, Karimipour and Funk say it was a great opportunity to bring their respective worlds to political decision-makers.
As the Canada Research Chair in Secure and Resilient Cyber-Physical Systems, Karimipour took the message that artificial intelligence plays a critical role in cybersecurity, helping detect and prevent cyberattacks and protect personal data.
“It is essential that AI is developed and used responsibly, with a focus on ethical considerations and the potential impact of society,” says the Schulich School of Engineering associate professor. “Recent advances in AI, such as ChatGPT and Midjourney, have shown great promise and, at the same time, the dangers of these technologies.”
Funk, meanwhile, is a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Banting Postdoctoral Fellow who specializes in emerging infectious diseases in women and children.
“I am in the process of seeing how, and if, we can use routinely collected electronic health record data in Alberta to create a sort of ‘alert’ system that can be used rapidly in the case of the next pandemic or other emerging disease event,” says the Cumming School of Medicine postdoctoral scholar. “The idea being that we could detect changes in health outcomes, and this could direct our more robust research efforts in real-time.”
A parliamentary elevator pitch
Karimipour and Funk, who were the first UCalgary delegates to attend since the program began in 2018, were able to spend time with cabinet ministers and other prominent politicians during the event, which allowed them to provide an “elevator pitch” of sorts.
Karimipour met with Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, hoping to impress upon him that AI tools are powerful and should be used for society’s benefit, not harm.
“We explored the role of AI in improving safety and efficiency in transportation systems and other critical infrastructure,” Karimipour says. “Our discussion highlighted the potential of responsible and ethical AI to enhance reliability and safety, while also promoting sustainability and reducing carbon emissions.”
Funk appreciated her discussion with Sen. Patti LaBoucane-Benson, an Alberta Métis who has a decorated background in academia (including a PhD in human ecology) and community involvement through organizations like Native Counselling Services of Alberta.
“During her time as a senator, among other things, she has sponsored important and successful bills that uphold the sovereignty of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people with regards to child and family services,” Funk says. “We had a warm and candid conversation about my research goals and experience, her career and work in government, balancing life and work, and being women in science and leadership – it was very inspirational.”
A hope for more conversations
Back in Calgary, Karimipour and Funk want to use what they have learned to continue pushing for positive change.
They also hope the conversations they had will lead to more definitive action by parliamentarians in the future.
“Policymakers must establish guidelines and regulations to ensure responsible development and use of AI, including data privacy, transparency, accountability and human oversight,” Karimipour says. “This will help ensure that AI is safe, ethical and beneficial to society, aligning with our values and priorities.”
Funk says communication is key, and she has learned that knowing who her audience is will help her tell her story more effectively, especially when it comes to her work in infectious diseases.
“This could theoretically give Albertans, and the wider Canadian public and scientific community, earlier and stronger evidence so they can make more confident and informed decisions about preventative measures such as vaccinations and school closures,” she says.