Year Ahead

The Year Ahead: Science and Technology in 2024

The AI revolution will transform the way scientists think and do business, while regulators will struggle to keep up. At the same time, new frontiers like hydrogen power, quantum computing and agetech will keep gaining steam.
Katie Underwood
YA_Science_WEB

 

(Illustration by Anna Minzhulina)

1. The government will investigate UFOs

There are close to 1,000 UFO sightings filed in Canada annually—rabid skywatchers will recall last winter’s Chinese spy balloon frenzy. And so, in 2022, the federal government greenlighted the Sky Canada Project, a deep dive led by the Office of the Chief Science Advisor that will review how UFO reports are collected and investigated here, with results due out this year. The goals of the project are to mitigate national-security issues, expand collaboration with U.S. organizations like NASA and streamline the reporting process—currently a hodgepodge effort by Transport Canada, the Royal Canadian Air Force and everyday civilians.

2. Canada will tax big tech

Despite oodles of opposition from our American neighbours, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland is doubling down: Canada will introduce its Digital Services Tax at the top of the year. The tax, a three per cent levy that would apply to tech firms operating on Canadian soil (think high-profit, lightly taxed corps like Amazon and Alphabet), is already three years behind schedule. The Trudeau government politely agreed to hold off on enacting the tax until the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development came up with a global version of its own. No sign on when that’ll happen, so Freeland and co. are plowing ahead, even at the risk of reigniting Trump-era trade tensions with what the U.S. ambassador to Canada is calling a “discriminatory” (read: expensive) measure.

3. U of T’s AI lab will be the mother of (many) new inventions

Big things are brewing at the University of Toronto’s Acceleration Consortium. Last April, the AI-powered lab received a record-breaking $200 million in government funding—the largest federal research grant ever awarded to a Canadian university—to pump out new prescription medicines, plastic alternatives, electronics and building materials, all at warp speed. It even found a potential new drug to fight liver cancer; the discovery took only 30 days, as opposed to the usual years-long timeframe. The lab’s self-driving model—which uses AI and machine learning to steer its experiments—could be the new benchmark for university research across Canada.

4. Hydrogen will co-power Canada’s emissions-free economy

If the feds have their way, 30 per cent of the country’s end-use energy will come from hydrogen by 2050. At the moment, producing high volumes of hydrogen typically involves a lot of fossil fuels; going forward, Canada’s doubling down on “green hydrogen,” created using renewable energy, like wind. It’s a much cleaner chemical alternative to the usual suspects—natural gas, diesel and jet fuel. Canadians will soon see hydrogen-powered projects popping up: per our so-called “hydrogen alliance” with Germany, Canada could be exporting hydrogen overseas before year’s end, and green-hydrogen plants—in New Brunswick’s Port of Belledune and Point Tupper, Nova Scotia, for example—are at various stages of completion in all four Atlantic provinces.

5. Quantum computing will be the next hot field of study

Quantum computing is a blend of computer science, physics and math that uses the principles of quantum mechanics to develop hardware and software—and solve problems way faster than regular computers can. In 2021, the federal government committed $360 million to position Canada as a global quantum research hub, and the University of Calgary’s faculty of science is set to launch the country’s first master of quantum computing program in January. Another buzzy initiative is Toronto Metropolitan University’s new four-year partnership with quantum-tech unicorn Xanadu, a collaboration that will avail TMU students of the tech firm’s software during coursework, in research settings and, one day, in product development.

6. Ring of Fire squabbles will stall Canada’s EV innovation

Some $67-billion worth of nickel, copper and cobalt—materials key to Canada’s planned electric battery empire—is buried under peat bogs in northern Ontario in a 5,000-square-kilometre, mineral-rich tract of land known as the Ring of Fire. So what’s the holdup? Ongoing battles between First Nations groups, environmental activists, mining firms and government regulators. Last year, fires, floods, protests and bureaucracy delayed public consultations with reps from 18 First Nations, but with any luck, 2024 is the year things will gain momentum: federal impact assessments are expected to kick off in the coming months, and the Ford government is building a road critical to transporting machinery. It has already inked deals to build battery production plants in Ontario, so the good news is: developing these mines won’t take forever.

7. Some businesses will sign Canada’s AI code of conduct; others will balk

Last fall, Yoshua Bengio, one of Canada’s AI “godfathers,” was tapped by the U.K. government to lead a multinational research effort to weigh the tech’s ups and downsides. Back home, Canadians patiently await our own regulations: the much-anticipated Artificial Intelligence and Data Act, due in 2025. To tide us over, the government recently introduced a voluntary code of conduct for companies that lean on generative AI programs like ChatGPT. Firms like BlackBerry, Telus and Toronto’s own AI juggernaut Cohere were eager signatories, and more are expected to follow suit in the coming months. Others, like Shopify, are likely to permanently withhold their signatures, suggesting that the rules are less indicative of responsible oversight and more of Canada’s aversion to innovation.

8. Businesses and schools will appoint chief AI officers

There’s a new executive in town: the chief AI officer, or CAIO, a role that revolves around integrating and optimizing the complex tech in workplaces. Recently, they’ve popped up in financial institutions, universities and even hospitals. The job description varies by company, but at Toronto’s University Health Network, Bo Wang, its first chief artificial intelligence scientist, is set to help spearhead the network’s AI Hub, applying AI to diagnostics and patient care, and to expedite wait and recovery times. At universities like Western, CAIOs have been tapped to guide the ethical adoption of AI in research and classroom settings. Experts predict that, unlike essays (RIP), there will be many more CAIOs to come.

9. Businesses will get schooled on how to fend off hackers

Cybersecurity breaches nearly doubled across Canadian businesses in the past year, with organizations paying an average of $7 million to cover damages. To help neutralize hackers, the University of Ottawa partnered last fall with IBM to found the Cyber Range, a cyberattack simulator that trains government workers and private-sector employees in the art of containing technological warfare. The Cyber Range will also welcome students, creating a pipeline of cybersecurity-savvy experts into the worlds of commerce and academia. Its inaugural cohort started this year, and next summer, it’ll host its first camp for high schoolers.

10. Agetech will assist Canada’s growing senior population

By 2051, a quarter of Canadians will qualify for the seniors’ discount. Agetech, an emerging technology stream, is about to up the options for seniors aging in place who want to stay active and entertained, and occasionally get some help schlepping their groceries. Envisage, an agetech accelerator, will provide seed money to get up to 100 firms off the ground in the next five years. Think robots that can navigate stairs (50-pound baskets in hand), apps for communication and games that make users feel like they’re cycling outside.


This article is part of the Year Ahead 2024, which is Maclean’s annual look at everything that’s coming your way next year. You can buy the print version right here.