CSIS director Michel Coulombe waits to appear at the Senate national security committee meeting to discuss Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism Act, in Ottawa, Monday, April 20, 2015. From cryptocurrencies, to artificial intelligence, to the rise of millennials, a top-secret document by Canada’s spy agency explores the so-called “mega trends” on its radar and details how they will transform the economy, society and security. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

‘Mega trends’ set to alter economy, society, security

A top-secret document by Canada’s spy agency explores the so-called “mega trends” on its radar

From cryptocurrencies, to artificial intelligence, to the rise of millennials, a top-secret document by Canada’s spy agency explores the so-called “mega trends” on its radar and details how they will transform the economy, society and security.

The evolution of these trends — set to play out over the next five to 15 years — will unlock new opportunities and new threats, said the recently released document prepared for Michel Coulombe, who was director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service at the time.

The draft discussion paper was created ahead of Coulombe’s participation at a November 2016 deputy ministers’ committee meeting on national security.

In the briefing, CSIS officials shared their insights on cyber security and privacy, the economy’s evolution toward knowledge-based sectors, the arrival of blockchain and cryptocurrencies, artificial intelligence, the emergence of the millennial generation, encryption and the advance of quantum technologies.

“Each of these trends bring promise and challenge,” said the paper, which was labelled “top secret.”

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“The rate and impact of technological advances and interactions are often misunderstood or underestimated. Organizations — faced with time, money and people constraints — will struggle to make effective planning and investment decisions.”

It warned that significant and sustained leadership, innovation, partnerships and investments will be necessary to deal with the complexity and accelerated pace of these changes.

A take-home message of the document is that policy-makers must figure out how much they really know about these disruptive technologies, their potential national-security risks and how to ensure Canada stays secure and prosperous.

The briefing was obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

A few areas highlighted on the CSIS list have already attracted some commitments from the federal government, while Ottawa insists others, such as the expected job-killing disruptions of technological change, remain a key focus as it prepares its spring budget.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau has said his upcoming budget will have core themes that include finding ways for science to help the economy over the long haul and preparing workers for the rapidly changing job market from advances like automation.

A recent report by Morneau’s economic growth council recommended Ottawa introduce new measures to help Canadians acquire new skills to prepare for the labour-market impacts of new technologies.

Among the group’s suggestions, it argued that Canada urgently needs another $15 billion in annual investments by 2030 for adult skills development to help workers adjust to the coming changes.

The CSIS document also warned that, as the world’s knowledge-based sectors evolve, we should expect increasingly fierce competition as states, organizations and individuals target new expertise and intellectual property belonging to others. It called this information, which would mostly exist in electronic format, a “highly valuable commodity” that will need protection from cyber attacks.

The federal government is planning to release a national IP strategy in the coming months. In last year’s budget, Ottawa said the strategy would promote the development of new ideas and technologies by helping ensure companies, academics and inventors reap benefits from their investments.

Related: Federal government needs help tackling cyberthreats, internal report warns

The document also pointed to a group of major technologies that promise to bring profound change, such as AI, advanced robotics, nanotechnology and biotechnology. At the same time, however, it cautioned these developments will likely lead to the creation of “new actors.”

“These include state-run laboratories, corporate investors, (do it yourself) maker groups, terrorists and organized criminals that are competing to harness and leverage these technologies in pursuit of their interests,” it said.

The paper underlined many broader risks associated with these technologies — from increased susceptibility to cyber attacks, to the facilitation of foreign weapons systems, to unemployment, to AI complications and the related liability issues.

The document also examined blockchain technology, the distributed ledger underpinning cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. The document said if done right, blockchain could become the “plumbing” for all transaction-based systems, including those for government services, heath records and real estate.

Looking at the impact of demographic shifts, CSIS said millennials will be the architects of much of this social, political and technological disruption — which means organizations must be ready to adapt, hire and retain them.

“The next anticipated cycle will be spurred by the millennial generation who, raised in a technically rich environment, have the potential to launch the next industrial revolution and create an economic boom rivalling — if not surpassing — the one created by the outgoing (baby) boomers.”

Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press

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