Vector Institute co-founder and Layer 6 AI co-CEO Tomi Poutanen (left) discusses Canada's AI industry with Axios features editor Steve LeVine during the second day of the Elevate Toronto conference on Sept. 13.

Published: September 15th, 2017

TORONTO – When Tomi Poutanen co-founded the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence in March, it wasn’t merely to support Canada’s efforts to become a global leader in artificial intelligence (AI) – it was to stem the brain drain caused by an exodus of artificial intelligence researchers, the Layer 6 AI co-CEO said during an appearance at this year’s inaugural Elevate Toronto conference.

Though Canada’s academic AI infrastructure is second to none, with many researchers from Europe and the U.S. electing to pursue their PhDs and master’s degrees at Canadian universities, once their studies are finished they’re frequently recruited by American firms such as Google Inc., Facebook Inc., Apple Inc., and Microsoft Corp., Poutanen said, with many receiving seven-figure offers straight out of graduation.

“The people who have the academic breakthroughs in deep learning here in Canada will have the greatest impact globally of any other individuals from Canada,” he said. “And that’s wonderful for us from an academic perspective, but it’s a shame from a prosperity perspective.”

“It’s an Avro Arrow situation… we’re not able to retain the talent and build a sustainable, prosperous economy around the innovations made by this group of individuals… while throughout the world commercial labs are advancing AI, often led by people who came through here.”

Fortunately, Poutanen added, Canada and its institutions are still in a position where they can do something about it: namely, by making the funding of jobs, creation of engaging institutions, and facilitating immigration a priority.

The last is already in place and currently one of Canada’s chief advantages over the U.S., he said, noting that Canada’s three foremost AI researchers – the University of Toronto’s Geoffrey Hinton, McGill University’s Yoshua Bengio, and the University of Alberta’s Richard Sutton – are all foreign-born (English, French, and American, respectively), but the other two need work.

For its part, the Vector Institute has raised $200 million in funding to build an organization with enough resources and opportunities to work with world-class AI experts – what Poutanen called “critical mass” – to retain the best and brightest of the Canadian university world’s current AI researchers.

“If you attract the world’s best you retain the graduates, because they want to work with them,” he said.

Central to the creation of world-class institutions is giving their researchers interesting problems to solve, he noted, which needs to involve not only schools but big players in Canada’s leading industries, such as health.

“There’s a reason Canada’s medical research sector is second to none,” Poutanen said. “We have amazing datasets here that cover 100 per cent of our population in terms of medical records.”

Investment in salaries is also an important step, he said, and one that isn’t discussed often enough.

“You do have to pay researchers – not seven-figure salaries, but enough to live a comfortable life in Toronto, which is an expensive city,” he said.

Poutanen said that while he’s seeing progress – witness Uber Technologies Inc. and Google’s recent decisions to open AI research facilities in Toronto and Edmonton, respectively – he hardly believes the country is in a position to rest on its laurels.

“If we hadn’t put the Vector Institute together, we would have lost a lot of our existing professors,” he told ITBusiness.ca after his presentation.

“We know AI will be have tremendous impact on society and our economy,” he said. “As a nation, we can either be a buyer of AI or a builder of AI. Clearly we want to be a builder.”

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