A new directory launched this month will help pave the way for businesses across Canada to participate more easily in one of the country’s fastest-growing industries.
Developed by ITBusiness.ca parent company ITWC, industry advocacy organization the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA), and marketing analytics software firm SalesChoice Inc., and launched on Dec. 12 to coincide with Technicity, ITWC’s Toronto-based smart cities conference, the directory provides Canadian businesses with a one-stop shop for all of their artificial intelligence-related needs by helping them connect with AI companies, influencers, resources, and researchers in one convenient place.
“New business models are evolving so quickly, it’s hard for organizations trying to commercialize their ideas to keep track of the IT community skills and expertise,” ITWC president Fawn Annan said in a Dec. 12 statement.
The first project released as part of the organizations’ Canadian Artificial Intelligence Initiative, the AI Directory was launched in tandem by ITWC and SalesChoice in Toronto and by CATA in Ottawa on Tuesday, with the latter’s president and CEO John Reid hosting a series of videos on Facebook Live.
“CATA is trying to drive a conversation among Canadians to help them fully understand the impact of artificial intelligence,” Reid told ITBusiness.ca.
That technology is having a far-reaching impact on Canada’s economy is hardly news, of course: A 2016 study by the Ryerson University-affiliated Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship found that in addition to being the country’s fifth-largest sector, it accounts for 7.1 per cent of its GDP and employs 5.6 per cent of all Canadian workers.
And according to an August 2016 report by Colorado-based market intelligence firm Tractica, the annual global revenue for artificial intelligence products and services is expected to grow from $643.7 million USD in 2016 to $36.8 billion USD by 2025 – a 57-fold increase.
Yet by some measurements, Canada is less ready than it should be to seize those benefits: in the World Intellectual Property Organization’s most recent Global Innovation Index report, it ranked 18th out of 25 countries.
That doesn’t surprise Reid, whose organization has long campaigned for the federal government to help raise our nation’s less-than-stellar reputation for innovation – and thanks to the considerable network of startups, incubators, postsecondary research institutions, and enterprises behind it, our AI sector is one of the most promising vehicles it could use, he said.
“In order to reverse those numbers, you have to look at the key driving sectors that will affect our institutions,” he said. “And artificial intelligence represents a whole sector in Canada that can compete globally.”
A global leader in AI
Nudge.ai CEO and co-founder Paul Teshima has heard the reasons for Canada’s internationally renowned AI sector – that it’s punching above its weight per capita, that it’s home to some of the world’s foremost AI researchers such as the University of Toronto’s Geoffrey Hinton – but he believes the reason for Canada’s AI leadership position is the result of our national work ethic.
“I think in a lot of ways, if you look at Canada’s tech industry, we’ve been phenomenally good at engineering,” he says. “It’s not a flashy culture like Silicon Valley… but it’s excelled at taking the latest innovations from labs and academia, and doing the work needed to bring great products or services out of them. And if you fast-forward to today, the biggest thing coming out of academia now is all this work around AI.”
Teshima said that engineering mindset always appealed to him and Nudge.ai cofounder Steve Woods when they served on the founding executive team of Eloqua, a Toronto-based marketing startup that was purchased by Oracle in 2012.
“Eloqua was in the marketing automation space from 2004 to 2012, and its core engineering team was Toronto-based for that whole run,” he said. “So we saw firsthand that engineering discipline as we moved the marketing space forward from what it was to what it became after marketing automation became a thing.”
“That mindset – that belief in building something for the long term, the ability to tackle a problem that’s a bit fuzzy, then methodically build a framework around it and march forward – is what’s needed to build an AI startup,” he continued. “And the best place to do that is Canada, where you have that long-term engineering mindset that is okay with vagueness in the short term because it’s confident in the value of the results in the long-term.”
Those long-term results have then gone onto reinvent – for the better – entire business models for the industries that have embraced them, enterprise information management software developer Open Text CMO Adam Howatson told ITBusiness,ca, and he would know: a longtime partner with the University of Waterloo, Open Text has benefitted firsthand from what Howatson called Canada’s “amazing” AI ecosystem and the “thousands of startups, innovative incubators, large corporate networks, and great academic institutions” that facilitate it.
(Open Text’s own artificial intelligence platform, Magellan, uses algorithms developed by Nstein Technologies, a Montreal-based digital content management firm it acquired in 2010.)
With the AI Directory’s release, companies will have an easier time keeping up with the digital transformation affecting the way they conduct business, regardless of their industry, Howatson said.
“Netflix bankrupted Blockbuster by turning it into a digital experience. Uber, the world’s largest transportation logistics company, doesn’t own any cars. Airbnb, the world’s largest hotel concern, doesn’t own any bricks or mortar,” he said. “These changes in business models are affecting every industry globally, and there’s going to be a massive shakeup over the next 10 years.”
“And with so many Canadian companies participating in the emergence of artificial intelligence, hopefully you’re on the Netflix side of the equation rather than the Blockbuster side.”
Supports government’s vision of an ‘innovation nation’
Saleschoice founder and CEO Cindy Gordon believes that building a directory of Canada’s AI resources is particularly appropriate in light of the federal government’s Supercluster initiative, with no fewer than three of the nine bids on the shortlist revealed in October, including an AI-powered supply chain supercluster based in Quebec, incorporating AI in some way.
More importantly, she said, the directory is ideally suited for a country whose various industries are, by virtue of its landscape, often quite fragmented – a liability in an analogue world but a potential advantage in a digital one driven by a global village mentality.
“Because we’re very regionalized, many of our top businesses have learned to think globally from the get-go,” Gordon told ITBusiness.ca. “This directory is the same. We’re happening to start in Canada, but have already started making footprints into China.”
Eventually, she said, the goal is to create a directory of AI-adjacent organizations around the world that people can search for based on location – and possibly use to find new partners, startups for investment or acquisition, or even new markets.
After all, CATA’s Reid said, if nothing else artificial intelligence represents a smart use of big data – a byproduct of the more than 20 billion Internet of Things (IoT) devices now estimated to be in use worldwide – and can be used by just about anyone, including small businesses, governments, hospitals, non-profits, and enterprises.
For partnerships, networking, or promotion
For Canadian businesses wondering how they can use the AI Directory, in which more than 600 organizations have already been profiled and indexed, ITWC, SalesChoice, and CATA offer a few suggestions:
- A platform that businesses which stand to benefit from AI-powered solutions can use to connect with community stakeholders, including solution providers, Ai researchers, and other potential partners;
- For AI startups, it offers the opportunity to develop brand awareness, with companies having full access to edit their expertise, partners, and relevant information for prospective customers;
- It provides a unified, collaborative footprint for the Canadian sector in general.
CATA’s Reid said he hopes Canadian businesses in particular receive three benefits from the new resource.
“First, anytime you can reduce time to market or time to information for a company, you’re providing a useful resource,” he told ITBusiness.ca. “Second, companies – particularly emerging companies – are always are looking for ways to raise their brand profile in the marketplace, and for them this is less a directory and more like a platform, a way to facilitate their brand.”
“Third, we want everybody to be part of the conversation about some of the regulatory aspects,” he continued. “Right now there isn’t much of a political debate in Canada about the fact that artificial intelligence is having a significant impact on employment… on things like self-driving cars and medical applications. There’s a whole horizon in society that will be enabled or reworked or re-engineered through artificial intelligence, and we need to talk about that.”
As CEO of an AI company herself, SalesChoice’s Gordon agrees with Reid’s assessment, particularly his second goal, noting that “at the end of the day… our brand will rise when the ecosystem’s brand rises.”
“I think we all recognize – and when I say ‘we,’ I mean Canadians – that for our future to be greater than where we currently are, we absolutely have to leap into new industries, and most of them are going to come from STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math],” she said. “And AI is one STEM field where Canada definitely has an advantage.”
“Economically, we’ve always been known for our fuel,” she added. “AI continues that heritage… At the end of the day, everything is going to get smarter, and AI’s going to fuel it. It’s just a matter of time.”
The AI Directory can be found here.