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Computer Science professor Yoshua Bengio is seen at his home in Montreal on Nov. 19, 2016.

Graham Hughes

The Quebec government's economic advisory council is calling on the province to quintuple its investment in artificial intelligence to $500-million over the next decade, warning its nascent power in machine learning will be at risk if it does not boost funding.

The Conseil consultatif sur l'économie et l'innovation, which includes 32 of the best business minds in the province – such as National Bank chief executive officer Louis Vachon and Énergir president Sophie Brochu – says AI's potential is a game-changer for Quebec's $400-billion economy. But the council says the province needs to commit far more money to get lasting benefit from the industry and adds that the private sector needs to be more open to AI's practical possibilities and get more involved.

"The world's biggest AI names are investing in Quebec. While our leadership is real, it is also fragile," the council says in its action report, to be released on Thursday and shared in advance with The Globe and Mail. "Quebec must ramp up its ambitions and act quickly to expand its expertise and develop the use of AI solutions to ensure this niche takes root and to maximize its spinoffs." The recommendation is one of 12 in the 40-page blueprint for economic improvement. It stands out for its superlatives, highlighting the belief among Quebec's corporate leaders that the power of cognitive technologies, and what the province has already built to further their development, can alter its fate.

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"Artificial intelligence represents historic economic potential for Quebec," they conclude. "The potential is so dazzling, and Quebec's leadership so promising, that artificial intelligence could, by virtue of its spin-offs, generate new wealth capable of mitigating the economic impact of an aging population. AI is a game-changer of the highest order."

Countries and companies across the world have started investing massively in building AI-related competency, with the European Union committing the equivalent of $1.2-billion to develop the technology over the next five years and the United States expected to spend even more. Google's acquisition of startup DeepMind Technologies for US$500-million in 2014 was only one deal in a wider race by tech companies to beef up their AI capability.

Quebec has been a locus of AI activity, particularly in the field of deep learning – basically training computers to learn like humans. The practical applications of this niche are numerous, from voice recognition to computers reading X-rays with greater precision than the human eye.

The province has one of the world's leading researchers in the field, Yoshua Bengio, and two world-class deep learning research institutes: the Institute for Data Valorization (IVADO) and Mr. Bengio's Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA). In a bid to affirm the blooming status of Quebec and Canada globally, the provincial government last year announced the creation of an AI industrial cluster, with an operating budget of $100-million over five years. Ottawa pledged another $40-million for Quebec through its own pan-Canadian AI strategy.

That's good – but it's not enough, the economic advisory council says. It says Quebec's current AI ecosystem is frail, comprised of no more than 200 people the world wants to steal away. "We need to give depth to this sector and position ourselves aggressively, not only as the place for knowledge development but also as the first users of artificial intelligence," the report says.

The council recommends Quebec pony up another $400-million, to be paid out over 10 years. It says $100-million of that should go to MILA and IVADO and $150-million should be spent on education and training programs to produce 1,000 AI engineers a year. It says the balance should support "a public-private fund to be used for investing in startups and preserving Quebec ownership of up-and-coming champions." This raises questions, notably whether the government would be funding companies that could ultimately be foreign-based or open to foreign takeovers. A similar debate is currently raging in Quebec over taxpayer support for video-game producers, with critics arguing that France-based Ubisoft Entertainment SA, the biggest player in the province, creates real wealth only in its home country. Whether it makes sense to spend public money to train AI engineers who might end up working abroad is also unclear.

Premier Philippe Couillard's government launched the advisory council in 2016, hoping a group of well-informed business leaders with diverse perspectives could come up with practical ways to improve the economy with greater private-sector involvement. The exercise was not born from crisis: Quebec's economy grew 1.7 per cent that year as the government brought public finances back under control. The next budget is expected in March.

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Researchers at the University of Oxford are revolutionizing the way we diagnose heart disease, using artificial intelligence, as Stuart McDill reports. Reuters

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