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Yoshua Bengio, an artificial intelligence pioneer and co-winner of this year’s prestigious A.M. Turing prize, in Montreal on March 12, 2019.

Renaud Philippe/The New York Times News Service

Aaron Brindle is a partner at Radical Ventures. Leah Morris is an associate at Radical Ventures.

Predicting what comes next in the rapidly evolving field of artificial intelligence is simple: Follow the talent. From quantum neural networks and automated machine learning (AutoML), to AI for drug discovery and natural language processing, the path to future innovations and commercialization is charted by a small subset of the global technology talent pool, the elite AI researchers who call Canada home. Like Benjamin Franklin knotting a key to a kite in a lightning storm, Canada’s artificial-intelligence researchers are unlocking technology that is reshaping our world. Every facet of our economy and lives stands to benefit from breakthroughs in AI.

Canada’s AI pedigree is no accident. Long before their work would define a new era of innovation, CIFAR and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) were funding the work of AI pioneers Geoffrey Hinton, Yoshua Bengio and Richard Sutton. And, as their breakthroughs made the leap from the lab into real-world applications, vibrant ecosystems of innovation coalesced around Canada’s AI luminaries. Focused government investment, paired with commitments from the private sector, anchored this community in Canada, establishing centres of excellence with the shared mission of attracting world-leading research talent. Today, the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, the Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute (Mila) and the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) are major hubs in the hyper-competitive global AI talent landscape.

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Despite Canada’s pioneering AI research and growing talent base, strong competition is mounting globally. The 2020 updates to the Tortoise AI Index, ranking capacity for AI, reveal worrying trends. Canada held fourth place on the global stage, but its operating environment fell from fifth place to 32nd. This may be based on low rankings for privacy legislation implementation and a lack of public trust. Possible indications of public misgivings were demonstrated through the loss of the Sidewalk Labs waterfront development project in Toronto last year. Additionally, Canada slipped nine places in terms of development, a category requiring industry collaboration to support contributions to new models, techniques and products. The report also cites a drop in incentives to seek patents as a contributing factor to a slip in the rankings.

Meanwhile, the United States has significantly greater capacity to fund R&D efforts – spending almost US$1-billion in non-defence AI R&D in 2020. Estimates of China’s AI R&D budget are five times higher still. While the United States and China surpass Canadian funding on a per-capita basis, Canada continues to compete on the basis of top-quality talent producing impressive research results. In 2020, Canada moved from seventh to sixth place globally when ranked by total article share in the AI field from 2015 to 2019.

Like a flywheel, the government investment in Canadian AI talent attracted commitments from private industry to build corporate R&D facilities, and spurred direct investments from venture capital to commercialize research in AI-focused startups. Just 10 years ago, there was virtually no venture-capital investment in Canada’s AI ecosystem. In 2020, Canadian AI startups raised a total of US$1.16-billion in venture capital, up 50 per cent from 2018. Today, Canada is home to hundreds of active AI startups and more than 45 companies have invested in Canadian AI research labs. The benefits of these investments compound over time, generating top-tier talent and yielding greater returns for less spend. Once set into motion, the flywheel effect creates sustained growth and momentum in AI-related advancements.

Accelerating this virtuous cycle relies on three factors. First, Canadian industry must continue to expand its AI adoption through commercial partnerships. Whether it’s through access to the latest research, or building out specific AI integrations to solve business challenges, Canada’s AI research institutes are structured to help facilitate this process for Canadian businesses. Private investment in research institutes offers a unique opportunity for corporate Canada to contribute to Canadian AI research while benefiting from AI advancements tailored to business outcomes.

Second, business and the public sector must prioritize responsible data sharing. While Canada is the top country in Open Data Barometer’s assessment of 30 countries on access to data, better co-ordination between the public and private sector will cement this lead through the provision of high-quality data opportunities for AI research. For instance, while Canada has a large opportunity based on its single-payer health care system, competing priorities and unforeseen complexities in executing a centralized database have, to date, eluded attempts to fully actualize this resource for research and develop applications to transform health care from generalized and reactive to personalized and pro-active.

Finally, we must continue to invest in basic, curiosity-driven AI research. Endorsing the renewal of the federal Pan-Canadian AI Strategy is the quickest route to prioritizing investments in talent and building on Canada’s AI research legacy. Led by CIFAR, the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy is a $125-million program aimed at funding the next generation of global AI leadership here in Canada. It is precisely the kind of funding that benefited Canada’s AI pioneers early in their careers, establishing the academic scaffolding for Canada’s future AI ecosystem.

Not unlike today’s electrical grid, AI will soon power nearly every human interaction with technology. Government and business must ensure that Canada remains a leader in the development and retention of talent that ultimately drives the commercial potential of this technology. Just as Thomas Edison would build upon Franklin’s early discoveries, now is the moment to capitalize on the opportunity afforded by Canada’s AI innovations. Lightning to lightbulb. This is the transformative moment Canada must invest in.

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