Walking the Talk: Can Canada Champion the AI Revolution?

Posted on 25th October 2018

This is the second article of our series analysing artificial intelligence (AI) strategies. The first, assessing the UAE’s 2031 AI Strategy, found that it set the country on the right trajectory and is available here.

Canada, like many countries, is pitching to lead the fourth industrial revolution and “own the artificial intelligence century.” These moves are backed up by several policy initiatives and a supportive government, but is Canada doing enough to Champion the AI revolution?

The State of the Ecosystem

To start with, collaboration between the private sector and academia has accelerated the development of AI applications and laid the foundation for a solid and mature ecosystem rich in funding, talent, and research. Canada’s strong universities have encouraged this with academic investment in research and strong talent, pushing Montreal, Vancouver, and Toronto forward as technology research and application hubs.

Today, Canadian cities are home to AI pioneers like Geoffrey Hinton, the Godfather of Deep Learning, Yoshua Bengio, known for his leading contribution to artificial neural networks and deep learning, and Richard Sutton, one of the founding fathers of modern computational reinforcement learning.

The Power of Start-ups

Start-ups are often deemed the lifeline of any nascent technology. They are an organic brain child of advanced research hubs and traditionally ensure the delivery of the next phase of innovation, which in turn attracts investment-ready companies, such as Google, Facebook, Samsung, IBM, and Uber. The collaboration between start-ups and big AI-driven companies reflects the maturity of the Canadian AI ecosystem.

It is worth noting that technology companies are not the only stakeholders financing the AI revolution, banks are joining too. To that extent, the Royal Bank of Canada and Bank of Montreal invested CAD 4 million into ‘the Creative Destruction Lab’, an incubator and accelerator for locally born AI start-ups, which currently features over 50 impressive start-ups.

The Importance of Government Commitment

Canada’s bid to champion the AI revolution is encouraged by a plethora of forward-looking government initiatives to prioritise experimentation and collaboration.

For example, Canada’s fast-track immigration programmes for foreign talent invites the “world’s most promising researchers in deep learning and other AI subfields”  to look at “Canada as a hub with many opportunities to collaborate, advance research, and develop applications” according to Geoffrey Hinton.

Government commitment has contributed to the growth of the ecosystem, eliminated or reduced basic perception blockers, and further fostered a rich regulatory environment to further boost development.

As a result, jfg estimates that the Canadian ecosystem saw a 28% increase in number of active start-ups, as well as an average increase of 49% of AI-related deals in the last five years.

AI Canada Fig1
 Multistakeholder Collaboration for AI Uptake


The Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy

Building on the mature state of the Canadian AI ecosystem, the government developed the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy – a CAD 125-million plan with four objectives at its core:

  1. Increase the number of outstanding artificial intelligence researchers and skilled graduates in Canada.
  2. Establish interconnected nodes of scientific excellence in Canada’s three major centres for AI in Edmonton, Montreal and Toronto.
  3. Develop global thought leadership on the economic, ethical, policy and legal implications of advances in AI.
  4. Support a national research community on AI.

The Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy is an organic extension to Canada’s AI bid and is led by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR). The strategy adopts a unique, sustainable bottom-up approach:
AI canada 2

In addition to domestic measures, Canada’s embrace of the fourth industrial revolution goes beyond its borders. Abroad, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promotes the “the Canadian AI vision to ‘secure Canada’s foothold’ in AI research and education”.

Taking advantage of Canada’s 2018 G7 presidency, Trudeau led the creation of a G7 common vision for the development of AI. At its core, the vision promises the fair, equitable development of AI for mankind. Such efforts by the G7 are commendable, but given realpolitik, international commitments to an ethical and technologically neutral approach to AI are likely to change as more complex applications rise.

Mitigating the Challenges of AI

Perception problems pose less of a threat to AI development in Canada than the UAE, but capacity building and awareness raising remain key sustaining the momentum currently encouraging AI development in Canada.

Perhaps a bigger challenge to the Canadian bid to lead the AI revolution rests in maintaining commitment at the highest political levels, locally and internationally. Long term political support is fundamental to reap the benefits of AI and the government will have to work closely with countries beyond the G7 to ensure that everyone benefits equally.

In sum, the Canadian approach to leading the AI revolution is formidable. It is equal in ambition with the Emirati approach, yet benefits greatly from a mature ecosystem, light years ahead of the UAE’s. Canada’s multistakeholder approach and talent-attraction incentives should serve as an example for other countries invested in the fourth industrial revolution.

Author: Hussein Abul-Enein, Public Policy Analyst, Access Partnership

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