Canada is uniquely positioned to become a global leader in the world of artificial intelligence and transform not only Canada as a country but the world, according to Jordan Jacobs, Layer 6 co-founder and chief AI officer at TD Bank Group. And he’s not wrong, the Canadian AI ecosystem has grown tremendously in the past blank years and hasn’t shown signs of stopping.
Since last year there has been a 28 per cent increase in the number of active AI startups in Canada and a 49 per cent increase in AI related investment deals, with over 800 startups, investors, incubators and public research labs across Canada dedicated to the AI industry according to statistics from Jean-François Gagné, AI entrepreneur and co-founder of Element AI.
According to Gagné’s report the number of international players like Google and Facebook setting up labs in Canada has more than doubled from 20 to 50 in 2018.
Canada as an AI superpower
At Elevate Tech Fest in Toronto, Jacobs spoke about about Canada’s success so far but also the role it needs to take in the global AI industry, and what what still needs to happen for the country to compete with other AI superpowers like the U.S. and China.
“[Canada] has an opportunity that we have to take advantage of and jump on right now,” he says, and the reason we have this opportunity, because Canada invented “the most important technology since electricity.”
Jacobs is referring to ‘the godfather of deep learning’ Geoffrey Hinton, an emeritus distinguished professor at the University of Toronto, chief scientific advisor at Vector, as well as a lead researcher at Google. Hinton’s work on neural networks, (rebranded as deep learning), led to a re-birth in deep learning technology that now underlines most AI technologies we use today from speech and image detection to self-driving cars.
“That never happens in Canada, we never have the opportunity to take this position globally, have leadership (particularly in research), and build on it in a way that can actually transform the country and transform the world,” argues Jacobs.
And Jacobs isn’t the only one that thinks this; according to a study conducted by Green Technology Asia Ltd, in partnership with the University of British Columbia, “Canada’s artificial intelligence revolution presents tremendous opportunity to translate an early lead into a key 21st-century industry.”
In 30 years there will be two global AI ecosystems that dominate the industry, says Jacobs, the U.S., thanks to Silicon Valley, with its big tech companies and early adoption of AI, and China which he says has made significant investments, on both the government and corporation level, over the past five years, to catch up and even surpass the U.S. in research and adoption of computer vision technology.
“[We’re] going to see the growth of these two ecosystems in parallel, partly because of security concerns, partly because of different views on privacy,” says Jacobs, noting that U.S. and China will inevitably be leaders, but, he argues, there’s still room for a third ecosystem and Canada should lead it.
According to the ‘Canadian AI Ecosystem’ study, four cities are “likely to become the hubs of the artificial intelligence revolution in North America”, and it states that if Canada’s industry continues to develop at its current rate Toronto and Montreal will be two of those cities alongside San Francisco and Seattle.
How to become a leader
But in order for this to happen Jacobs argues that Canada needs to continue to develop its AI ecosystem, and encourage tech talent to stay here rather than moving to the U.S. or elsewhere.
To become the third biggest world leader in AI he says Canada needs to do three things: extend our lead in research, build Canada as a commercial centre of AI at a global scale and finally be a leader in ‘AI for good’, developing ethical AI and creating policies to match.
“[We] can’t do this incrementally,” he says, “five years from now is too late, even two years from now it too late.” He argues there needs to be some changes in the public and private sectors in order for this to happen.
To meet the three goals he’s set out Jacobs suggests focusing on immigration, education, open data and better support for startups and scaleups.
“Due to ongoing innovation-negative geopolitical conditions in major AI superpowers, Canada may prove to be a safe, depoliticized realm for researchers and scientists to conduct AI developments,” states the Canadian AI Ecosystem study.
Jacobs goes further, stating that the policy changes made by Donald Trump’s administration restricting visas for Chinese students in tech and engineering that also requires annual renewal, gives Canada an opportunity to open our borders to these types of students and use their talent to grow our industry.
However, he says the Canadian government isn’t doing enough and proposes it should massively ramp up immigration efforts, and offer permanent residence to individuals studying at Canadian post-secondary institutions in certain types of degree programs (i.e. STEM). He even goes as far as the suggest permanent residency for family members and argues that six to 12 months later that person and their family should get full Canadian citizenship.
Bringing families along with students or workers creates an environment where they would create roots and want to stay, helping keep tech talent in Canada, Jacobs says, and he argues that as a country Canada can easily absorb these immigrants and “it would completely transform the future of the country by re-orienting the centre of the universe of AI and tech.”
“Canada’s educational strengths begin to dull at higher levels of skills development,” according to the Canadian AI Ecosystem report, “producing few graduates with PhDs and graduates in math, science, computer science and engineering.”
There is a need to invest more in technology education from the graduate level to primary school, says Jacobs. He notes that the Vector Institute, which he co-founded in 2016, works with the federal and provincial government as well as industry leaders and the University of Toronto to increase education opportunities in technology and encourage the application, adoption and commercialization of AI across Canada.
Last October, the Ontario government announced that it is working to increase the number of postsecondary students graduating from STEM programs by 25 per cent over the next five years and invested $30 million in the Vector Institute to help it reach its goal of graduating 1,000 AI students annually.
Investing in, and encouraging AI education “will create the largest number of AI degrees in the world and has [and will] encourage companies to come to Canada,” says Jacobs, which in turn will also invest in more Canadian tech talent.
Data, Scaleups and Branding
Another key component says Jacobs is open data sharing between Canadian companies, specifically noting the unique advantage Canada has when it comes to healthcare data.
“In Canada, the most notable application for AI is healthcare. [It] has its own niche for social health care data and is able to take advantage of opportunities featuring AI application in this industry particularly,” stated the Canadian AI Ecosystem report.
Jacobs says the mass collection of healthcare data collected about all citizens combined with our diverse population gives AI companies a unique data set to make Canada a leader in developing AI technology to improve healthcare.
But for AI startups to be able to do something with these advantages they need to scaleup, he says, the ability to scale is the biggest challenge facing these companies.
“Investment strategies focus on hatching start-ups and growing them to small and medium-sized businesses with early market validations and exponential growth revenue,” according to the Canadian AI Ecosystem report, “in Canada, capital is also exceptionally impatient. Projects that require large infrastructure and incremental elongated capital are less likely to be realized in Canada.
The Canadian government needs to step up, and not just for AI startups but all entrepreneurs, says Jacob, arguing that both federal and provincial governments should offer tax incentives to encourage investment in tech.
With all these things in mind, the final step is branding, making a name for Canadian AI on the global stage. “We should brand AI in Canada and spend a lot of energy marketing that globally,” he says, “if we can do that, we as a country can get to a place where Canada has a healthier and wealthier role in artificial intelligence domestically and globally”