It may surprise some people to learn that Canada can justly claim to be the birthplace of deep learning and reinforcement learning, two of the most advanced artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities with applications in market today.
We’ve invested a lot of our taxpayer money into helping our globally-recognized researchers succeed, including $125 million as part of the Pan-Canadian AI strategy announced in 2017. That head start has cemented the country’s reputation as an academic leader in the field, but has it given us an advantage in terms of economic and social benefits?
The short answer is: not yet. However, there are signs that Canadian businesses are starting to leverage our academic head start to create true commercial value.
For instance, our academic advances have led global firms to set up research centres within proximity to our brightest researchers in Edmonton, Montreal and Toronto, creating hundreds of jobs in those cities and providing an opportunity for Canadians to gain hands on experience in AI research and solution development.
For example, last month Samsung announced it is setting up an AI Research and Development Centre in Toronto – just the second AI Centre to be established in North America – that will focus on building the connected future by accelerating adoption of AI on multiple devices ranging from household appliances to cars. Samsung highlighted its decision is all about the talent.
While such investments are certainly positive, they won’t provide the long-term economic advantages that a homegrown AI commercial culture will. Indeed, some critics are already claiming that while these technology giants are creating jobs for Canadians, the transformative economic benefits of AI will flow out of the country without a Canadian-based industry.
So, what can we do to foster a Canadian AI industry focused on generating and retaining economic and social benefits? Our global peers are moving quickly, so we need to act today by:
- Creating an environment for Canadian AI start-ups to flourish and scale;
- Ensuring Canada’s corporate and government leaders and management teams invest in understanding how AI can deliver material benefits to their operations;
- Creating effective collaboration between academia and industry that recognizes the need to transform research outcomes into engineered solutions; and
- Working with educators to produce graduates who have the right skillsets to apply AI solutions to business problems beyond the lab.
Every day, new companies are formed out of the advances in research. Canadian start-ups have increasing access to venture capital that allows them to see their ideas come to life in the form of software solutions. The challenge for most start-ups is being able to scale beyond relatively small levels of revenue.
For start-ups to succeed, they need customers. AI will almost certainly have a role to play in every sector, just as mobile computing does today. We must engage corporate and government leaders to understand the potential of AI to improve products, services and operations, and encourage them to look to Canadian start-ups for solutions. Many of our future start-ups get training and develop their ideas within the same institutions that are being funded by the Pan-Canadian AI strategy and other federal and provincial government programs.
Senior corporate and government leaders must increase the pace and scope of engagement with AI to become more efficient, improve interactions with customers and citizens and develop new and deeper insights to drive business decisions. This will create the markets necessary for new technology solutions coming out of our schools, incubators, technology incumbents and even in-house resources. This will require a fresh look at legacy innovation models and the skills of the current workforce.
The Canadian government’s introduction of the Innovation Supercluster program is advancing collaboration between academia and industry, but there is more to do across every sector of the economy. Recently, leaders in academia and industry have been considering the gap between research and commercialization. This gap may be filled in part by start-ups and by global technology companies, but also needs a concerted effort to make sure the right skills and partnerships are in place to bridge from fundamental and applied research to prototyping to market introduction and integration.
Finally, we must ensure that educators are empowered to deliver graduates with the skills that meet the evolving needs of the marketplace, which goes beyond just research and technology. To complement the technical expertise that Canadian companies and governments provide, we need skillsets that can identify and apply AI solutions to practical problems outside the lab.
The Smith School of Business at Queen’s University recently launched a Master of Management in Artificial Intelligence. The degree aims to educate technical experts on the business skills needed to commercialize their computing talent. Conversely, it will provide business students with a high-level understanding of the technology, so they can better identify commercial applications. That type of educational innovation is critical to realizing the future benefits of AI technology.
This is a very exciting time as artificial intelligence emerges from Canadian research centres and begins to transform many aspects of our world. That transformation – particularly, who leads it and who benefits from it – is not pre-ordained. We have all the right ingredients for success in Canada—it’s now time for us to mix them all together.
Jodie Wallis is Managing Director of AI in Canada for Accenture. She and co-host Amanda Lang discuss these issues in a new five-part podcast series, The AI Effect.