Max Fawcett is a freelance writer and a former editor of Alberta Oil magazine and Vancouver magazine
You almost have to feel for Jason Kenney right now. After running for and winning office in 2019 almost entirely on a pledge to spur job creation, he’s now having to face down the worst economic crisis in Alberta since the Great Depression. While the idea of economic diversification is still widely viewed as a form of blasphemy in a province where praying for another oil boom is practically the official state religion, it seems like Mr. Kenney is willing to at least flirt with sin. His Economic Recovery Council has explicitly acknowledged that it will “focus on strategies for long-term recovery from the crisis, including efforts to accelerate diversification of the Alberta economy.”
Those efforts should begin with the province’s fledgling artificial-intelligence industry, which has achieved the unusual combination of global acclaim and local anonymity. Over the past two decades, the work of a small group of University of Alberta computer-science professors, headed by Dr. Richard Sutton (one of the founding fathers of something called “modern computational reinforcement learning”), has drawn hundreds of students from around the world who came to Edmonton so they could learn from and participate in it.
In 2017, their presence and reputation was integral to DeepMind (Google’s AI company) choosing Edmonton for its first international research office. That same year, the federal government named Edmonton as one of Canada’s three national hubs under its Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy.
The size of the prize attached to the work being done in Edmonton is considerable. In a 2018 study, McKinsey estimated that AI and machine learning could increase global GDP by 14 per cent or US$15.7-trillion by 2030, and that “leading AI countries could capture an additional 20 to 25 per cent in net economic benefits.” By 2030, McKinsey estimates that as many as 70 per cent of global companies will have incorporated some aspect of artificial intelligence into their day-to-day operations, in a wide range of industries that includes everything from manufacturing and technology to health care.
And unlike most potential forms of economic diversification, AI is actually an asset for the oil and gas industry – a partner, not a predator. Both Suncor and Imperial Oil have laid out their plans to incorporate AI into their business operations, with Imperial striking a two-year partnership with the Edmonton-based Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute. Artificial intelligence could also help Alberta’s farmers and ranchers increase their yields, reduce their costs, and improve their global competitiveness.
The size of the prize attached to AI also explains why so many jurisdictions are aggressively competing for it. For example, MIT recently announced an investment of US$1-billion in its own AI facilities - the largest-ever AI investment by any U.S. academic institution – while Chinese AI firms attracted US$7.4-billion in 2018. Alberta, on the other hand, appears determined to go backward here. In addition to eliminating the Scientific Research & Experimental Development tax credit in 2019 (a decision that left Alberta as the only province west of the Maritimes without one), the government slashed funding for institutions like the University of Alberta and organizations such as the research and innovation agency Alberta Innovates. It’s one thing to want to avoid picking winners, but when it comes to AI it’s almost as though Alberta wants to ensure there can’t be any.
It’s not too late to change course. For as long as he’s in office, U.S. President Donald Trump remains the most effective tool for recruiting Americans that Canadian tech companies have ever had, and that applies to the 100-plus Alberta-based startups that are focusing on AI-based solutions. As U of A business school dean Joseph Doucet and Edmonton entrepreneur Cory Janssen wrote last year, “for the price of an overpass, we can guarantee economic and social prosperity for the citizens of this city, province and country. We must not miss being at the forefront of the next industrial revolution.”
In order to avoid missing out, Alberta will need to expand its shared understanding of how wealth can be created – as well as how it was created in the past. The oil sands, after all, required decades of nurturing, government support and partnerships with academics and researchers.
But those investments paid off handsomely, and the same could easily be true for Alberta’s AI sector with just a little bit of care and attention. It already has a cluster of human capital that is more valuable than any new well you could hope to drill, and a cost and quality of living that’s very appealing to people currently living in places such as Vancouver and San Francisco.
With the right leadership, and a restoration of the funding and tax credits that were in place until recently, Alberta could be the best place in the world to start and commercialize AI-related businesses. All that’s missing is a willingness on the part of its provincial leaders to see what’s right in front of them – and finally do something about it.
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