Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I want to thank the committee for this opportunity to share my perspectives on disruptive technologies.
These are rooted in my 38-year career, first as a scientist, and then as an executive of science and technology organizations and programs that, in one way or another, have been intimately connected to matters of defence, national security and public safety.
Ladies and gentlemen, the early indicators of disruptive potential of technologies often appear long before the disruption occurs, though history shows we often miss these indicators for many reasons. I'll use some anecdotes to make this point.
As a young researcher at one of Canada's defence labs in the early 1980s, I was introduced to a somewhat clunky but fascinating new communications tool called “electronic mail”, or what we had started to call “email”, when our defence labs gained access to an emerging concept being pioneered by the U.S. military, called ARPANET. We immediately had a new, real-time method of collaborating with our Canadian and U.S. defence researchers. Our mindset towards collaboration changed quickly.
In the early 1990s, under a defence program I was managing at the time, we were approached by a group of engineers looking to spin out of Nortel. They had what appeared to be an effective and affordable way of encrypting email. This seemed like a great idea with a potential future market if email were to gain wide use. We agreed to help. The company was formed. Its name is Entrust, now recognized as a world leader in information security technologies.
In the late 1990s, as the ARPANET had moved into civilian mainstream, now known as the Internet, we began to be concerned that as the military became more dependent on information and communication technologies, it would be vulnerable to potential adversaries' disruption of these systems. We formed a group to begin researching information security, including the potential of information warfare and how to defend against it.
In 2008 the world witnessed the first use of cyberwarfare during the Russia-Georgia war. The world had been disrupted.
Here's a second example. In the mid-1990s our defence scientists were examining the potential to bring together two space-based technologies. First, what were the military and civil implications of the U.S. military agreeing to make available for civil use the signals from its newly operational space-based global positioning system? What if low-cost GPS receivers were available commercially? The second was the potential military and civil applications for high-resolution imaging obtained from space-based systems, such as Canada's then recently launched RADARSAT. What if these massive digital images of any location in the world could be made available to users in real time?
Now, couple this with the real-time accuracy of GPS location information and we have enormous potential. We thought these could be game-changers, but we were daunted by the challenges to commoditize them. A decade later, companies such as Apple and Google had made low-cost accessibility to these integrated technologies ubiquitous. The world had been disrupted.
On September 11, 2001, we all watched in horror as the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington unfolded before a global audience. Terrorists had used existing technology—civilian aircraft—in an unconventional way to a massively disruptive effect. Were the warning signals there in advance? Arguably, our cultural bias that suicide was unacceptable, no matter what the commitment to a cause may be, made it difficult to contemplate such a scenario. The month following, the world was introduced to the spectre of biological terrorism when laboratory-engineered anthrax spores were sent to individuals using the U.S. postal system as the delivery mechanism.
What's my point in reciting these incidents? Yes, both were cases of innovative application of existing technologies. However, the real disruptions have been in the way governments and societies have responded to these events through the implementation of new and more stringent security legislation and measures.
Let's look at some of the key issues that are before Parliament legislators and regulators today. In the late 1940s, the oil and gas industry had proven a new and innovative technology, called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Over the past 15 years it has been applied on large commercial scale to shale-oil and gas deposits.
What's the disruptive effect? Arguably the most significant is that within the coming decade, the U.S. is forecast to go from being a net energy importer to being a net energy exporter. The geopolitical implications are far-reaching. In Canada, we are presently dealing with the economic implications of a dramatic drop in the price of oil, tied in part to a global oversupply enabled by fracking. The world has been disrupted.
Now I suggest that the most disruptive technology that the world is experiencing today is social networking. This is profoundly changing the way that people interact. There are many upsides. There are also new ethical, security, and safety implications to which governments, legislators, regulators, and security organizations are scrambling to respond. Cyberbullying, identity theft, and ISIS recruitment of Canadians via social networks are examples of hot topics.
The world needs new technology to address many of the grand challenges facing humankind in the 21st century: climate change, population health, energy security, food supply, and urbanization. We can expect that technological solutions to these grand challenges will be disruptive to markets and to society, just as the consequences of humankind's inability to find technological solutions will most assuredly be disruptive to our current way of life.
However, I contend that the public's acceptance of new technology is taking on some troubling dynamics. The public's perception of the risk to society of new technology is being confounded by the inability to communicate in simple terms and build broad public trust in the answer to one question: what does the science say regarding risk? Regulators are frequently faced with public backlash, in effect that the risk is not acceptable, and in fact, that no risk is acceptable. Genetically modified foods, deep geological repositories for radiological materials, pipeline safety, windmill siting, and child vaccinations are each important case studies of how the public perceives and ultimately accepts or rejects risk, despite the significant benefits that these technologies will otherwise bring to society, the environment, and the planet.
The world will surprise us; of this, I'm sure. Many of these surprises will be rooted in the disruptive consequences of new technology or the innovative application of existing technology. Business will be on the front line, both in creating the conditions for disruption that leads to competitive advantage in the marketplace and in responding to others' competitive advantage. There is much that governments can do and must do to help the business sector in this regard.
On the other hand, governments will be on the front line when it comes to addressing the social, ethical, economic, safety, and security disruptions that occur from technological innovation. Efforts to forecast the potential disruptive effect of technologies on markets and society are important. There is much at stake.
Now I contend that to effectively address these challenges requires vigorous engagements of government and science and of the public and science. It's difficult to find a grand challenge facing Parliament that does not have a significant science component. Parliament needs to be a customer of science advice. New mechanisms have been put in place to address this gap—the Council of Canadian Academies, and the Science, Technology and Innovation Council, to name some—and more needs to be done.
One example of “more” is the government's initiative under way to transform Canada's largest science and technology complex located two hours up the Ottawa River at Chalk River into a multi-mission, national laboratory under private sector management. The government-owned, contractor-operated model has been proven to work very well in the U.S. and U.K.
What does this big idea offer by way of potential? It offers relevant and timely science advice and technology innovation for governments to help them understand future disruptive technologies and to address public safety, security, and health needs; the potential to be a key player in meeting the G-7 goal to decarbonize economies; commercialization support for small to large companies seeking to build competitive advantage through technology; and access by academic and industry researchers to large publicly funded science infrastructure. It's a big idea whose time has come.