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Ed Clark is chair of the Toronto-based Vector Institute and a former president and chief executive officer of TD Bank Group

Many people think of artificial intelligence as something large technology-driven companies can use. While this is true, it is much more than that. Its impact will be more like the effect of introducing electricity. It will transform almost all industries, making firms more competitive. There is an international economic race among countries in adopting AI in their businesses.

It is for that reason that the Vector Institute adopted three goals: Be a world-class AI research institute, help Canadian firms and public institutions be better at using AI than their counterparts in the world, and help small Canadian businesses to grow and create jobs by using AI to make them competitive in the world.

This broad mandate has been supported in a unique way, essentially one-third funded by the federal government, one-third by the government of Ontario and one-third by private sponsors. Companies don’t give away money easily. Their support is recognition that they are in a global competitive race and their ability to use AI will be decisive. It is also a recognition that as companies, they will only do well if Canada does well. So, having an institute that helps small and medium-sized enterprises, or SMEs, adopt AI is essential.

SMEs using AI can play an important role in our economic recovery from the pandemic, a key priority for both the federal and provincial governments. They are like a job-creation machine: They employ nine in 10 of the people in the labour force and generate about half of Canada’s GDP.

Vector recently sponsored a virtual event to talk with SMEs about the issues they struggle with in adopting AI. More than 400 people attended, many of whom were founders and CEOs of these SMEs.

We learned lots of things, for example, like how difficult it can be for small-business owners to stay up to date on the latest in technological advances while balancing the daily challenges of running a business. Or how their customers already expect them to be similar to large enterprises in supporting personalized service and technologically advanced approaches, but where they differed was that these larger enterprises have access to big analytics and AI teams. We also heard that their competitors are taking initiative and becoming effective with AI, and they need to be, too. We learned that interest among business leaders is high and widespread, but they need a pathway to using AI.

This is where Vector can help.

Some examples include: Mycionics, a Putnam, Ont.-based company that provides automated mushroom farming solutions to Southwestern Ontario farms. The company had data but needed to make the jump to AI. After meeting with Vector’s engineering team, they were able to identify several areas where AI could be deployed, including using computer vision to improve their robot picking software, which can increase crop productivity.

Toronto-based Canvass AI is focused on enabling industrial companies to transform their operations using AI. Through access to AI scientists and Vector’s programs where research is engineered for application, they’ll be able to stay up to date on leading AI methodologies and practices and access in-demand AI talent.

Other participants in Vector’s new FastLane program work in industries such as agriculture and insurance, and hail in Ontario from London to Lively. We need to take advantage of this interest, double down on our strengths, and support small-business and medium-sized-business use of AI.

Canada has been recognized as having a unique AI talent base and a world-renowned community of scientists and industry. Given this foundation, founders and business operators shouldn’t be left to figure this technology out for themselves, especially in a moment when it’s becoming more accessible and valuable to companies of all sizes. If we are looking for levers to accelerate postpandemic economic recovery and growth in the future, raising AI abilities in these companies is a big one.

With AI proficiency now emerging as a competitive driver, let’s not miss this opportunity to make it happen.

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