‘Full speed ahead, go, go, go!’ Frank McKenna sells AI & the digital economy

Frank McKenna addressing his digital innovation summit on June 13

Former Premier Frank McKenna is campaigning hard for New Brunswick’s public and private sectors to adopt and use digital technologies including artificial intelligence and the science of big data.

At the conclusion of his two-day digital innovation summit on June 13 at the posh Algonquin hotel in Saint Andrews, McKenna challenged about 50 invited business owners and executives, prominent academics and government officials to follow John F. Kennedy’s example and aim for the moon.

“I’d say to all of you here, we’ve really been set up for a big moon shot [with] the new, emerging, exciting technologies, so let’s embrace them and let’s win,” he said. “Full speed ahead, go, go, go!”

McKenna was referring to the announcement a few minutes before that the University of New Brunswick would be setting up a Data Science and Artificial Intelligence Institute to support interdisciplinary research on digital information technologies.

UNB President Paul Mazerolle

UNB President Paul Mazerolle said the new institute would provide shared resources for university researchers already using data analytics and artificial intelligence in such fields as biology, environmental science and computer science.

“Importantly it will allow us to better confront what I call the grand challenges that we see across our society,” Mazerolle said.

“Our university’s already fixated and focused on grand challenges, applying our skills, our knowledge, our expertise to these issues whether they’re in health, whether they’re in human cybersecurity, environmental systems, in water systems and importantly, future energy.”

Exclusive invitation

Warktimes may have been the only media outlet invited to McKenna’s digital innovation summit.

The former premier extended the invitation after I asked to cover former U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton who was scheduled to deliver the keynote speech this summer at his annual networking summit in Fox Harbour, Nova Scotia.

“The event is totally private and our guest speakers know that Chatham House Rules prevail,” McKenna responded in an e-mail.

“Many of our guests would not be comfortable being in the public spotlight.”

However, he suggested that instead, I might be interested in his invitation-only digital innovation summit in Saint Andrews sponsored by the McKenna Institute at UNB.

The Algonquin Resort in the early-morning haze of June 13, 2nd day of McKenna summit when Warktimes suddenly had two hours to kill

A few days later, I received a formal invitation from Erin Hatfield, UNB’s director of communications.

“Again, this year, the sitting rooms and conference rooms will be packed with the who’s who of the business community talking about how digital innovations will help grow the province’s economy in all sectors of the economy – from software development to food production,” Hatfield said in an e-mail.

“There will also be breakout sessions on innovation hosted by top experts and business leaders,” she wrote.

“We’re only inviting those who will understand it’s worth investing the time to make the trip.”

Closed-door meetings

Hatfield’s invitation was for the second-day only with sessions from 8 a.m. to noon.

However, shortly after my arrival on June 13, she said I would not be allowed to attend the three breakout sessions from 9 to 11 where invited guests would discuss New Brunswick’s path to digital transformation.

UNB President Mazerolle explained later that the rules guaranteed anonymity to speakers at the breakout sessions.

He said it was only the second such summit and maybe there would be room for more public engagement at future ones.

“When we started this, we wanted to get the right business leaders in the room, the right government officials and the right academicians and build a Chatham House Rule approach where there can be full and frank discussions,” he said.

Elite recruitment

Mt. A. Politics Professor Geoff Martin

Mazerolle’s reference to Chatham House reminded me of McKenna’s e-mail about his closed annual networking sessions in Nova Scotia.

Mount Allison University Politics Professor Geoff Martin, who was not invited to the Saint Andrews summit, says exclusive, closed-door gatherings like that are known in political science as tools for elite recruitment and socialization.

“You have to find new people who will come into the economic and political elite and you also have to then shape their views,” he says.

“I think particularly too in this neo-liberal era of the last 40 years, these events tend to be secret events because the views they’re expressing are often unpopular,” Martin adds.

“You’re in a long game, you’re chipping away little by little on major public policy goals, privatization, deregulation, maintaining the domination of the oil and gas sector, protecting the national banking system and the privileges of the chartered banks.

“These are the kinds of things that are not really all that popular and the popularity I think is declining over time, but that’s really what I think that event is all about.”

Martin was speaking specifically about McKenna’s networking event in Nova Scotia while the digital innovation summit in Saint Andrews seemed more narrowly focused on persuading key leaders to embrace the digital economy.

‘Play at the top of our game’

Frank McKenna interviewed after his digital summit

During an interview after the summit, I asked McKenna what he thought the big “take-away” from it was.

“It’s just the transformational power of technology,” he replied.

“In a place like New Brunswick, even though we think of ourselves as small and rural, we still have to play at the top of our game in terms of innovation and competitiveness — whether it’s the way we grow potatoes or the way we grow blueberries or whether it’s our health care offerings. It could be any one of a number of things. It could even be our tourism product. We still have to use the most advanced technology in the world if we want to be competitive.”

McKenna added that governments are also learning that by analyzing massive amounts of data, they can improve the quality of health care while reducing its costs.

“It’s not often you get a chance to get a two-bagger,” he said with a smile.

Note: Mark Leger, UNB’s managing editor of strategic communications and marketing, did get to attend one of the closed breakout sessions. To read his report, click here.

To listen to my CHMA radio report on McKenna’s digital innovation summit, click here.

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7 Responses to ‘Full speed ahead, go, go, go!’ Frank McKenna sells AI & the digital economy

  1. Meredith Fisher says:

    Just a few years back, Mr. McKenna thought that Fracking was the best thing since sliced bread for New Brunswickers. Those “gifts”, secret meetings and the analyzing of massive amounts of data could give our NB sliced bread a weird aftertaste. Doesn’t Mr. McKenna live in Ontario?

  2. Wayne Feindel says:

    I’m so excited. Artificial intelligence requires input from ratepayers who operate on IA An idiot auto taxpayer.
    Meanwhile back in the real world, we need the men in denim to provide the daily bread of life. McKenna a modern-day, snake-oil salesman who ripped us off by shutting down the trades. In my visits this summer with small businesses trying to find someone who can hold a hammer, cook a meal, read an order, even show up for work. Stop paying the elite to screw up your life.
    There is a clear and present danger in particular concerning more than privacy. What standard will be laid out to monitor the power of authorities, because you have to consider the worst way they could use it.

  3. S.A. Cunliffe says:

    Excellent coverage Bruce.. thanks.. much appreciate the report.
    You should put a donate button on your website.

  4. Seems like this AI ship is already sinking: Ugly Numbers from Microsoft and ChatGPT Reveal that AI Demand is Already Shrinking — “The only areas where AI delivers the goods are spamming, scamming & shamming.”

    I have read that if the ‘cloud’ is someone else’s computer, AI is just someone else’s labour. I can attest, as Google scraped all 3,500 posts on my blog to feed their AI C4 Data Set, infringing copyright with abandon https://jarche.com/2023/04/getting-scraped/

    A check of the WaPo article shows that 120,000 tokens for the C4 Data Set were created when Warktimes was scraped by Google https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/interactive/2023/ai-chatbot-learning/#lookup-table

  5. S.A. Cunliffe says:

    Canada’s unique status as one of the 10 digital nations in the world so far – so its not surprising to see New Brunswick pushing ahead with the agenda.. with some sense of urgency…They have to start somewhere and our population has proven compliant, eh? I love how they try to make this ‘move’ into something sexy…
    New Zealand
    Republic of Korea
    United Kingdom

  6. Jon says:

    Unlike the democratization a networked economy was touted to be bringing, we’ve got people like Musk controlling social media for their own interests and their own agendas, and Facebook bullying sovereign countries to surrender copyright on journalism. Hearing Frank McKenna shouting “Go, go, go!” to AI, as he deliberates about it with a select few out of the public eye, without any understanding of whom AI’s going to exploit, disadvantage, dispossess, endanger, or manipulate, and mainly concerned with how it will affect the balance sheets of the people in the room, is in keeping with the Zeitgeist.

  7. Dave Bailie says:

    As anyone who knows me even a little bit knows I have never trusted Frank McKenna since he was instrumental in giving our NB Forest ( & Province) over to the Irving Empire to ‘manage’ . My blood boils whenever I hear his name so I figure there must be a buck in it for McKenna & his cronies if he is excited about AI & the Digital Economy.

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