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The University of Waterloo campus in Waterloo, Ont., on Aug. 29, 2015.The Globe and Mail

When COVID-19 struck Canada, we were caught flat-footed by a lack of domestic capacity to produce personal protective equipment.

A year later, we were home to 90 new companies pumping out PPE by the truckload for the North American market.

When the pandemic prompted lockdowns, small retailers struggled to move online. Within months, close to 7,000 businesses in southwestern Ontario were able to do so, thanks to a co-operative effort in the region by business, universities and governments.

This incredible response to a global crisis belied the idea that Canadians are not fast enough, hungry enough or innovative enough to lead the world.

In reality, we’re all of those things – especially when there’s a higher purpose driving us.

We need to build on that reality, because there’s a massive opportunity in front of us: to lead the world in creating and commercializing applied, ethical artificial intelligence, which will be critical to meeting the other big, gnarly, global challenges bearing down on us.

There is no major sector that AI and data science are not already transforming, whether it’s health care, agriculture, mobility, climate mitigation or education, among many others. AI’s enormous power allows companies and governments – as well as less savoury actors – to understand and act on the torrent of data our connected world produces, enabled by techniques at the forefront of computational and statistical research. This power demands that we build AI in a way that embraces fairness, transparency, security and accountability.

Canada is fortunate to host some of the world’s top minds in foundational and applied research in AI and data science, and a growing roster of fast-scaling, multibillion-dollar companies deploying it. But unless we do more to support our researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs, any head start we might have enjoyed will disappear – along with those top minds, well-paid jobs and investment dollars – as China, the EU and the U.S. steam ahead.

As the pandemic winds down and the economy ramps up, the urgency to act is that much more acute.

The new U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which directs US$110-billion to technology research, commercialization and education in AI, quantum computing and other areas, is one stark reminder that Canada cannot afford a fractured system of turning knowledge into economic advantage.

As leaders at the heart of Canada’s innovation economy, in Waterloo Region, we recognize the excitement, optimism and ambition among those who study, live and work here. Home to a growing roster of high-growth companies in key sectors, the region is one of the top five tech centres in North America based on its concentration of talent, and among the fastest growing, according to new data from CBRE, the commercial real estate and investment firm.

Still, we must keep building if we want to turn potential into results, not just for tech companies and their shareholders, but for broader humanity: our stakeholders.

Canada and Waterloo have all the raw materials at hand. This starts with the partnership between the University of Waterloo, with its world-class engineering, computer science and mathematics programs, and Communitech, the founder-focused innovation hub that helps tech companies succeed through connections to talent, capital and other supports. This sets innovators on a clear pathway from research lab, to incubator, to startup, to thriving company, with support at every step.

Brilliant students from around the world are drawn to the University of Waterloo’s co-op programs, in which they alternate between academic studies and real-world work terms at some of tech’s top firms. They graduate with the knowledge and networks to build their own companies – close to 1,000 at last count – or land rewarding roles at existing ones.

Canada’s commitment to immigration and diversity help drive our talent advantage. About 25 per cent of the University of Waterloo’s engineering and computer science students are international, and the region’s thriving environment makes it a natural place to build a career and pursue world-changing solutions.

Canadian graduates who have left the country are another talent pool we should tap more deeply, through pathways and incentives to bring them back home.

An entrepreneurial culture that welcomes everyone is another key building material. Canadians already know our society and economy benefit when more of us can contribute. Now, we need to extend that inclusionary focus to our innovations in applied, ethical AI and data science, and deepen our understanding of their consequences, intended or not.

“Tech for good” and “ethical AI” need to be more than catchphrases; they must be foundational to what we do, which includes teaching future leaders to create inclusive workplaces and see themselves as part of a greater humanity.

Are we driven? Yes. Hungry? Of course. But as a sparsely populated country with an unforgiving climate, we have a deeper sense of the collective good – and it’s an ethos we should celebrate and use to our advantage, without apology.

The final raw material is growth capital. More than $1.5-billion of it has poured into Waterloo Region tech companies just since early June. The confidence behind these investments speaks volumes about the community we’ve built since Mennonite farmers settled here 215 years ago, followed by successive waves of immigrant makers and entrepreneurs.

Key to sustaining that confidence will be our ability to nurture and scale our advantage in applied, ethical AI before it is overwhelmed by better funded and co-ordinated systems in other jurisdictions.

We have what it takes, but the world is calling on Canada. Now is the time to answer.

Chris Albinson is chief executive officer of Communitech. Mary Wells is dean of the faculty of engineering at the University of Waterloo. Mark Giesbrecht is dean of the faculty of mathematics at the University of Waterloo.

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