Canada: Focus on AI Gaining Momentum

By Irene Ng

Since coming into office in November 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government have championed the need for innovation and homegrown new technology in Canada. In particular, the government has increased funding for research and development, encouraged more women entrepreneurs to join the tech sector,
incentivised newcomers to set up businesses, and developed bold plans to establish five regional Innovation Superclusters with each focusing on a particular region and a specific industry.

One of the five targets is the artificial intelligence (AI) opportunity and is referred to as the ‘AI-Powered Supply Chains Supercluster’. Based in Quebec and spanning the Quebec- Windsor corridor, it encourages collaboration across the retail, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, and ICT sectors to build intelligent supply chains based on AI
and robotics. The region is home to some of Canada’s best research universities, incubators, accelerators and growth stage tech companies – all useful resources to growing an AI ecosystem. In addition to supply chains, other AI led initiatives gaining global prominence include autonomous vehicles and deep learning.

In a world where AI is becoming increasingly important, Canada’s strategic focus on innovation and AI is timely and well aligned with the efforts of other developed nations. Momentum thus far has been impressive.

  • Global tech companies are investing in a big way in Canada. Google and Uber have recently established labs focused on AI, whilst Samsung announced in June 2018 that it will be setting up a global AI research centre in Toronto (one of its three new global centres, with the others located in the UK and Russia).
  • Venture capital funding continues to rise. In their Q1 2018 Money Tree Canada Report, PwC Canada and CB Insights pointed to a 52% increase in total financing activity compared to the last quarter, amounting to over US$1 billion across 105 deals. Meanwhile, investment in AI companies grew 88% from Q1 2017 and amounted to US$83 million across eight deals. Of particular interest is that 60% of corporate venture capital investment in Canada appears to come from non-Canadian investors – a positive indication of the growing confidence displayed by foreign investors in the local technology scene.
  • Canada is taking leadership in terms of ethical AI. At the June 2018 G7 meeting in Quebec, Canada and France entered into a partnership to take the lead in developing guidelines on ethical AI, with the aim of becoming a global reference in this area. This comes at a critical time as there is a need to ensure safe and responsible use of this new technology in the face of rising cyber threats and diminished public confidence due to a spate of recent data breach scandals. Ultimately, AI should be used positively to improve lives and benefit the world at large.

Whilst it may be too early to measure the full economic and societal benefits of this innovation and AI centric strategy, the early progress highlighted above has been based on three key success factors:

Leadership from the top. From the very beginning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been a strong advocate for the new innovation economy. In fact, at his first World Economic Forum meeting in January 2016, he spoke extensively about the tech sector and promoted Canada’s “resourcefulness” instead of just its natural resources.

Cohesive strategy, collaborative approach. The Innovation Supercluster, as an example, was developed through extensive consultation with relevant stakeholders and is a model that encourages collaboration between institutions of learning, government, start-ups and large corporations, with the aim of scaling new solutions towards commercialization and growing the targeted industry. Aside from a general increase in research funding in the 2018 budget, specific funding was also made available for women entrepreneurs and women-led companies – the aim being to ensure that innovation opportunities should be inclusive and open to all.

Human talent, large data sets. Many companies are looking to hire PhD level engineers and Canada has a large pool of such talent. Research universities here have been investing heavily in AI research for years and it is no surprise that global tech companies are setting up AI labs and research centres here. More importantly, Canada is known for its social and cultural diversity – and large data sets reflecting this multiculturalism, collected through publicly funded systems in services such as health and transit, can be useful to AI developers as they work to eliminate biases in the technology.

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