For years, Canadian scientists such as Geoffrey Hinton and Yoshua Bengio have set the pace in the race to develop artificial intelligence (AI). Canada the country, meanwhile, has lagged behind, watching helplessly as much of its top AI talent left to pursue more attractive opportunities south of the border.
Well, that just changed.
On March 30, the Vector Institute opened in downtown Toronto. Benefitting from the federal government’s new CDN$125 million Pan-Canadian Al Strategy — with additional funding from the Ontario provincial government and the private sector — the University of Toronto affiliated research institute will focus on the transformative fields of machine learning and deep learning.
The Vector’s Chief Scientific Advisor is none other than the “godfather of deep learning,” Canadian Geoffrey Hinton. Hinton’s repatriation will unquestionably help the institute attract and retain top-tier AI graduates and researchers from Canada and around the world.
“The Vector Institute will confirm Canada’s world-leading position in the field of deep learning artificial intelligence,” said Ed Clark, CEO of TD Bank and Chair of the Vector Institute Board of Directors. “It will spur economic growth in Canada by attracting talent and investment, supporting scale-up firms and enabling established firms to be best-in-class adopters of artificial intelligence.”
“We will harness these cutting-edge technologies to improve everyday life in Ontario, while also attracting the world’s best talent to our province,” said Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. “These investments strengthen our position as a global leader in the innovation economy, which is critical to creating more well-paying jobs and shared prosperity for the people of Ontario.”
Transformation of Economic Model.
Speakers at the Vector’s opening ceremony emphasised on the relationship between AI and the Canadian economy, which leans heavily on its primary sector. With the North American Free Trade Agreement under review by the US, Canada is betting on AI.
AI is opening new ways to disrupt industries by training machine learning models with massive labelled data, with benefits ranging from self-driving vehicles to better medical diagnoses.
AI is also poised to play a critical role in optimizing Canada’s traditional industries, such as energy and oil, by boosting effectiveness and productivity. IBM’s Watson Cognitive Oil Field System is a good example.
Finance is another field where AI has huge potential. “Fintech,” the integration of Finance and technology, uses massive data and machine learning models to offer customized financial advice and automated asset allocation.
It’s hoped the Vector Institute will breathe new life into such industries. Although Canada has been pursuing an innovation economy for the last ten years, the country’s relatively small marketplace has hurt its B2C (business to customer) development.
Cognos was an Ottawa-based business intelligence and performance management software company. Founded in 1969, it was acquired by IBM in 2008. Similar fates befell Algorthimics, Varicent and Clarity – among the best data-driven companies in Canada of the 2000s – who were also bought out.
AI can help shift the economy to B2B (business-to-business), as companies recognize the transformational potential of deep learning and machine learning in fields as diverse as health care, finance, insurance, education, retail, advanced manufacturing, energy, construction and transportation. More than 30 companies have committed a combined total of over $80 million over ten years to support the Vector Institute.
Canada is catching up.
Over the last 20 years, Canada has contributed invaluable research achievements to the AI boom. Toronto and Montreal have played key roles in the rise of deep learning, and produced thousands of AI talents — but many have left for companies and institutes elsewhere. Geoffrey Hinton and his DNN Research were acquired by Google in 2013.
“Canadian companies last year acquired only 18 AI startups, out of 658 that were acquired globally,” said Dr. Alan Bernstein, the president and chief executive of Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR).
As Silicon Valley became the new heaven for top-tier AI researchers, Canada realized something had to be done to stop the brain drain.
“We need to keep people here, to let people think of Canada when they looking for chance, development, and leadership,” said Toronto Mayor John Tory.
AI-oriented institutes and universities began by deploying different strategies in education. Yoshua Bengio, a top scientist in artificial neural networks and deep learning, launched a startup incubator, Element AI, to help companies emerge from the Université de Montréal and McGill University.
The Université de Montréal’s AI faculty, led by Dr. Bengio, launched a successful deep learning summer school in 2016, aimed at graduate students and industrial engineers and researchers who already had basic knowledge of machine learning (and possibly but not necessarily of deep learning).
Meanwhile, some new Canada-based AI companies are performing strongly. D-Wave, an AI startup, is the world’s first quantum computing company using the deepest insights of physics and computer science to achieve breakthrough approaches to computation and address complex challenges in science, business and government. Google and NASA have been D-Wave partners since 2013.
MindBridge, another Canadian AI startup, shows how AI is revolutionizing financial crime investigations. In March, the Bank of England announced a collaboration with MindBridge.
The Government of Canada’s commitment is evidenced in the $125 million Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, which aims to secure Canada’s position as a world leader in AI. The program will be administered through CIFAR.
While $125 million might not be enough to support AI research long-term, it is a great start. Said Yuxi Li, a Chinese Canadian researcher: “More energy has been injected to generate more excellent talents and research achievements, exemplified by Element AI in Montreal and the Vector Institute.”
A “Made in Canada” AI ecosystem.
“I’m excited to see the Canadian government and schools putting more resources into the AI field to support projects and train talents,” said Elva Wu, an associate venture capitalist at Istuary Innovation Group, a Canadian technology incubation platform. “Supported and cultivated by the Vector Institute, there will be more AI startups in Canada, and we love to see that.”
Students at Montreal and Toronto universities will now have the chance to stay in Canada to work in machine learning, as the Vector Institute will strengthen the connection between industry and academia.
Chinese are the largest group of international students in Canada, and those interested in AI research have traditionally moved on to Silicon Valley or Boston. However, the launch of the Vector Institute, along with new US immigration restrictions, are inspiring many Chinese and other foreign researchers to look instead to Toronto or Montreal.
“I was planning to leave for Silicon Valley after graduation, but that might change,” said a Chinese student researcher in Toronto who preferred to remain nameless. “US President Trump keeps downplaying the importance of technology, AI and globalization. Meanwhile, Canada is investing heavily on AI. That will generate more opportunities for me here.”
Tech conglomerates are already coming to Canada and investing in AI labs. Google and Microsoft, the most competitive tech giants in deep learning research, have respectively backed AI research in Canada, giving local students the opportunity to stay and work with the world’s best. Google has also pledged $5 million to the Vector Institute.
In the coming years, will Canada develop an AI-centered rival to Silicon Valley? It’s not a dream anymore.
Author: Tony Peng, Synced Tech Journalist | Editor: Michael Sarazen