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Features | 3 min read

Artificial intelligence could be our next major export

 

This piece was originally published in the Edmonton Journal on September 27, 2018.

 

Three years ago, the artificial intelligence “industry” in Canada wasn’t really possible.

Two years ago, it started being possible.

Today, it’s a certainty: Canada is well on its way to becoming a global hub for artificial intelligence, or “AI.” We are steadily attracting some of the brightest students and talented scientists to study and conduct research here.

The challenge, however, is expanding the number of AI companies, spaces, and institutes to increase job availability and retain these talented individuals. If we can expand the pool of available jobs for our AI researchers and graduates, we stand a chance of retaining them to pursue their AI careers here, instead of losing them to Silicon Valley and giant companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon.

The most recognized names in Canadian AI are Richard S. Sutton, Yoshua Bengio, and Geoffrey Hinton. Sutton is a researcher at the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) and a professor at the University of Alberta. Bengio is a director at the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA) and a professor at the Université de Montréal, and Hinton is the chief scientific advisor at the Vector Institute and a professor at the University of Toronto.

With strong leaders in these research facilities and post-secondary institutions, Edmonton, Toronto, and Montreal are quickly becoming the frontrunners of Canada’s AI advancement.

Each city has its particular strength: Edmonton’s Amii, as well as the University of Alberta, both produce high-quality artificial intelligence and machine learning researchers and graduates. These aspects, combined with Edmonton’s affordable housing, livable economy, and varying areas of research specialization, make it an appealing place for international companies to expand their operations.

As the financial and business capital of Canada, Toronto offers the most active venture capital opportunities for growing AI spaces, and has opened its doors to international tech giants like Google, increasing knowledge transfer and collaboration with Silicon Valley.

Montreal is also emerging as a powerhouse for AI. With help from MILA and the Institute For Data Valorization (IVADO), Montreal has also opened its doors to AI research labs built by Microsoft and Google, making this city one of the AI centres of the world.

Despite the strengths of each individual AI hub, no one city will be able to survive in the AI ecosystem alone. To make Canada a true leader in AI, we need to look across the spectrum of research and learn how we can collaborate across all of our universities and institutions. Additionally, we need to continue to make strategic investments to ensure we’re getting the right students, post-graduates, and ultimately keeping international researchers here in Canada to work for Canadian AI companies that matter.

With increased collaboration, Canada has an opportunity to be a global leader in the AI space, but so far we’ve only just dipped our toes in the water — we haven’t jumped in.

Interest in Canadian AI has only started to see growth within the past couple of years when computing powers grew to a level where we could really start to utilize the algorithms that have existed for decades, to create real-world applications.

Amii’s Sutton, considered the founding father of modern computational reinforcement learning, has said, “AI could be well thought of as the leading edge in the second industrial revolution.” We now have the opportunity to double-down on something significant that will get us recognition on a global scale; we just have to ensure that the big bet will pay off.

Investment in Canadian AI is still very cautious and very local. We’re excited and very proud of our advances in AI, but in order to make it something Canada is internationally recognized for, we would have to invest 10 times more than we’re investing today.

Globally, the U.S. and China invest the most in their own AI research, but what they lack is the high level of education that Canada offers, the ability to leverage Canada’s talent, and the same opportunities to attract international researchers.

Our country has so many of the foundational minds in AI, but so little of the investment and recognition. There’s no reason this couldn’t be our next major export. We have yet to boast an industry that we are known for; we’re a resource economy. AI is our first opportunity not only to improve our resource economy, but to make a huge shift in the Canadian economy for the better.

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