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Canada must focus its AI vision if it wants to lead the world

Jonathan Schaeffer is a fellow of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence and dean of the faculty of science, University of Alberta.

In McKinsey & Co.'s report Disruptive Technologies, technologies containing artificial intelligence (AI) are expected to create tens of trillions of dollars in economic impact by the year 2025. Similarly, Gartner Inc. lists machine learning (a subset of AI) as one of the top 10 strategic-technology trends for 2017. Yet another technology fad? Perhaps, but it is hard to imagine any industry that won't be affected by software applications with "smart" capabilities.

For several decades, Canada has been a global powerhouse in AI research. The Universities of Alberta, Toronto and Montreal have world-class AI research centres, and several other universities have strong programs. With all the media attention AI is suddenly getting, it is critical Canada leverage this enormous technology asset.

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AI technology has been widely deployed for more than 20 years – but it is invisible to most people. Whether it is being used for credit-card-fraud detection (banking), online product recommendations (sales) or in computer games (entertainment), AI is already affecting the world. But the potential of new machine-learning technology is so much greater. Soon, we will see safe driverless cars, life-saving medical advances and the Internet of Things – all powered by AI technology. But unless we do something about it, foreign companies will supply most of this technology to Canadians, even though key parts of it will have been invented in Canada.

Whereas AI in Canadian academia is world-class, what can we say about the role of AI in Canadian industry? My AI research colleagues and I are challenged to identify even a few Canadian companies that employ 10 or more AI specialists, yet it is easy to name numerous international firms that have hundreds of such employees, many of them graduates of our excellent AI programs. What does the rest of the world know that Canadian firms do not?

Montreal-based Maluuba is a rare example of a commercially successful Canadian AI company. It was recently purchased by Microsoft. This is reflective of the current state of our high-tech economy and a warning as to where we are going.

I have graduated 75 master's and PhD students in my 33 years as a professor. Fewer than half remain in Canada; few are employed in jobs that take advantage of their AI background. My colleagues have similar statistics. We train the best and the brightest only to watch them leave our country to enrich the rest of the world, or stay here and likely work in a non-AI field of computing.

Now is the time for Canada to think big and act boldly. Canada has few major high-tech success stories to brag about. With AI, we have most of the ingredients for changing the world; now, we need the winning recipe:

  • Retain and grow the academic expertise. Non-Canadian firms and universities are increasingly targeting Canada’s AI talent, and with them the most valuable asset – intellectual property (IP).
  • Grow the AI work force. Our universities can feed ideas and graduates to industry, but Canadian industry has limited capacity to exploit this to innovate. We must create a larger and strategic receptor capacity for AI expertise. With few innovative companies and high-quality job opportunities, our graduates leave.
  • Promote entrepreneurship. Create an environment that encourages faculty and students to turn their research into companies of products and services. Critical to success in this area is putting in place the local support and early-stage funding necessary to maximize the chances of market success. Make it easier to quickly launch, acquire funding and build a successful business.
  • Diversify the economy. AI technology will touch almost every aspect of industry. We can develop new products and services and export them to the world, but we need existing Canadian companies to invest in R&D areas that employ our AI talent. By doing so, we can help erase the stigma of our economy as one of commodity extraction and exportation. Our highly skilled work force is not a resource to be extracted and then exported to the world. Move our resource-based economy to an idea-based economy.
  • Aspire to be the global leader in the area of AI. Such bravado may seem un-Canadian. There’s nothing wrong with having a bold vision, as long as the country follows through with a bold implementation that’s oriented toward capturing wealth from the AI expertise we create for Canada.

None of this is hard; it just takes time, a mindset change and focused funding to make this happen. There is nothing novel or specific to AI in the above recipe. Commercializing IP is how the new wealth is created in the 21st-century global economy. Canada needs to be doing that across all sectors and industries.

It is tempting to throw money at this Canadian AI opportunity and hope everything works out. By all means, start the process of putting the necessary funding in place (through federal, provincial and industrial initiatives). However, reflection is needed to come up with a vision that maximizes the chances of achieving major economic outcomes for Canada.

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History tells us a top-down political approach is unlikely to succeed. Conversely, a purely academic-led initiative will not produce the commercialization to scale or marketable products and services that will have economic impact. The solution has to be one that creates a continuum between pure research (solutions looking for problems; long-term view) and applied research (problems looking for solutions; short-/medium-term view), and introduces policy strategies that support our best companies that are aiming to scale up globally.

Experience also tells us a single national initiative is unlikely to be effective. Conversely, a combination of purely local solutions will lack vision and co-ordination. The solution must be to work together under a national umbrella but have hyperlocal organization.

The end result must be to create, grow and scale up Canadian companies globally and, in the process, bring significant private and public wealth here. With innovative ideas and excellent graduates coming from our universities, the opportunities for industry innovation in this area will multiply. We can reset Canada's future in AI technology from extraction to attraction.

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