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Government, business leaders launch Toronto-based AI initiative

Ben Holfeld of Accenture’s AI practice, left, helps Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau use a DAQRI Smart Helmet during the launch of the Vector Institute for AI at the MaRs Discovery District in Toronto on Thursday.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Canadian Press

A mix of government and business leaders joined together Thursday to announce the launch of a new research hub devoted to the study and application of artificial intelligence, a branch of computer science that many believe is poised to revolutionize everything from education to the global economy.

The Vector Institute is a non-profit and independent facility that will operate out of the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto. In addition to pledges of $40-million from the federal government and $50-million from the Ontario provincial government, a group of 31 corporate donors – including Shopify Inc., the Big Five banks, Loblaw Cos., Magna International Inc., Thomson Reuters Corp. and Air Canada – have pledged to deliver $80-million over 10 years to foster work in so-called AI deep learning and machine learning.

"Partnering is the only way we get to an announcement like this," said Premier Kathleen Wynne, who was accompanied by Finance Minister Charles Sousa, and spoke ahead of federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Toronto Mayor John Tory and University of Toronto president Meric Gertler.

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"AI can make some people nervous, though not at the risk that computers will rise up against us," Ms. Wynne said, joking that Vector's scientific adviser, Prof. Geoffrey Hinton had assured her there is no risk of that.

Opinion: Artificial intelligence is the future, and Canada can seize it

Dr. Hinton – who will have an unpaid and voluntary position at Vector – works for Alphabet Inc., and is part of a Google AI team that has produced hundreds of research papers on artificial intelligence in recent years. At U of T, he was one of the small group of Canadian researchers who pushed Canada toward global leadership in AI, developing some of the science's foundational algorithms in the 1980s.

Ms. Wynne acknowledged the potential human cost – in white-collar as well as blue-collar jobs – wrought by increased automation through artificial intelligence, and said her government's pledges on making free tuition available to more students, opening up child-care spaces and a basic-income pilot program will add more to the province's social safety net.

"My guess is like everything else in technology, it will replace a lot of white-collar jobs but it will also create a lot of white-collar jobs," said Gordon Nixon, former chief executive officer of Royal Bank of Canada and now the chairman of the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto. "If you look at banking, we have eliminated probably 50 to 70 per cent of the typical jobs in banking over the last 30 years, yet Royal Bank employs 80,000 people now compared with 20,000 20 or 30 years ago. So we have had all these jobs being replaced but all these new jobs being created. I am sure that is something that will happen."

Stephen Gardiner, managing director of Accenture Digital in Canada, put the challenge in starker terms, warning that the next wave of workers is smaller than the boomer generation, and things such as the increased costs of supporting retirees requires huge productivity gains to maintain Canada's standard of living. That means fewer people doing more and more valuable work, according to models developed by the management consultant firm.

Sponsors of the new institute see the chance to commercialize research relatively quickly, in part because they hold some of the datasets researchers need to train new learning engines.

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"Canadians feel uneasy about the future," said Ed Clark, the former CEO of Toronto-Dominion Bank and a business adviser to Ms. Wynne , who was announced as the new chair of the Vector Institute. He laid out an array of good reasons for unease: sluggish growth, increases in income inequality and a rise in protectionism. The goal of Vector is to create more advanced degrees in AI fields than anywhere on Earth, to build a Canadian "cluster of job choices" that will build the future with AI.

The answer, in short, according to Mr. Clark, "cannot be to let Canada become less competitive, quite the opposite."

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About the Authors
Technology reporter

Shane Dingman is The Globe and Mail's technology reporter. He covers BlackBerry, Shopify and rising Canadian tech companies in Waterloo, Ont., Toronto and beyond. More

Economics Reporter

Rachelle Younglai is The Globe and Mail's economics reporter. More

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