The next time you pull out your smartphone and ask Siri or Google for advice, or chat with a bot online, take pride in knowing that some of the theoretical foundation for that technology was brought to life here in Canada.
Indeed, as far back as the early 1980s, key organizations such as the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research embarked on groundbreaking work in neural networks and machine learning.
Academic pioneers such as Geoffrey Hinton (now a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and an advisor to Google, among others), the University of Montreal’s Yoshua Bengio and the University of Alberta’s Rich Sutton produced critical research that helped fuel Canada’s rise to prominence as a global leader in artificial intelligence (AI).
Canada now houses three major AI clusters – in Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton – that form the backbone of the country’s machine-learning ecosystem and support homegrown AI startups. In fact, Toronto boasts one of the highest concentration of AI startups in the world, while Montreal is leading the way in producing deep-learning research.
“More and more [Canadian AI] companies are gaining investment … the amount of money is increasing dramatically,” says Oshoma Momoh, chief technical advisor for Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District, incubator to a plethora of AI firms.
Among the tech heavyweights that have made significant AI investments north of the border are Uber Technologies Inc., Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.'s Google, Adobe Systems Inc., LG Electronics Inc., Samsung Electronics Co. and Amazon.com Inc.
Federal and provincial governments have also been keen to support the sector, with the aim of building a sustainable countrywide AI ecosystem and buttress Canada’s position as a leader in the field.
The vexing question is how Canadian institutions and business leaders can work together to maintain momentum. We asked leaders of some of the country’s top AI firms for their take.
Andy Mauro, CEO, Automat Technologies Inc., Montreal, a maker of conversational marketing software
“I think the government did a great job of recognizing the research leadership out of the University of Toronto and the University of Montreal, including celebrating and funding it. I think we should continue doing that. Supporting local, homegrown startups headquartered in Canada is debateably a better generator of economic prosperity for Canada than attracting Facebook, Google and Amazon, even though those are sexy names that look good in press releases.
"I believe the government should capital-match any startup that has raised venture funding – especially U.S. venture capital – and has decided to base their business in Canada. That would be a very bold strategy to help capitalize startups.”
Stephen Piron, co-founder, Dessa, Toronto, a business software firm
“There are fortuitous geopolitical things going on that make Canada extra-attractive. One thing the government can do is to encourage people to move here and not put up walls. They have a visa that we’ve used to get experienced, talented technical people from overseas in between two to four weeks.
"I think they need to do more things like that to encourage the best and brightest to come here. We recruit from around the world, and the stars are aligning where global talent would consider moving to Toronto, where maybe they would not have made that decision before.”
Ray Reddy, CEO, Ritual Technologies Inc., Toronto, a meal ordering app-maker
“It’s all about continuing to invest in the things that are working. That’s probably where governments can think about incentives for locating AI or machine-learning labs here.
"It would not be a bad idea to see a larger venture fund dedicated just to machine learning and AI. A decade ago, when mobile was emerging, for example, there were funds dedicated to mobile. There’s momentum, so we need to keep that going by somehow having startups, the private sector, government and education coming together in the right way.”
Kerry Liu, CEO, Rubikloud Technologies Inc., Toronto, an enterprise retail software firm
“Canada has some incredibly strong university programs focused on AI. McGill University and the University of Waterloo are two examples that are generating a lot of really great talent in this industry.
"The threat here is that we have to make sure the education available to students continues to keep pace with advances in the industry. Schools need to keep turning out great tech talent, or sooner or later the supply will dry up. High school and university curriculums alike will fail if they don’t adapt to include the skills that have direct business impacts.
"Also, although the AI industry focuses a lot on tech talent – developers, analysts, data scientists – selling AI is a whole other skill set – sales, marketing, finance. If the necessary step is to commercialize and sell an AI product, the talent needs to be cross-disciplined.”
Basil Bouraropoulos, chief executive officer, Stradigi AI, Montreal, a business software development company
“Our industry needs to think about how best to solve unique pain points and help society progress in a positive way. We must ensure that technology improves our lives, the connection between people, as well as easy access to valuable information.
"Our industry also needs to showcase more real-world applications of AI. This will help gain greater executive buy-in across more traditional or conservative industries. There is still lots of work that needs to be done to demonstrate the return on investment that companies experience when applying AI.”
Responses have been edited and condensed.