Steve Irvine is the founder and CEO of Toronto-based Integrate.AI
I recently made the decision to leave my executive role at Facebook Inc. in Silicon Valley to start a company, Integrate.AI, focused on applied artificial intelligence. Normally, this news would not raise an eyebrow in the valley. In fact, people in positions like mine often leave the comfortable confines of large tech companies to build their own startups in hot new areas, such as AI. However, there was a notable difference in my case – I chose to start my company in Toronto.
A lot of people immediately assumed I had made the move strictly for personal reasons, as my wife and I are both Canadian. But I'm not here to take a step back in my career. While I'm certainly happy to be closer to family and living again in a great country, I'm moving back because I believe that AI is the biggest technology advancement that we will see in our lifetimes and that Canada is the best place in the world to build a global leading AI company.
In my last job, I led the partnership programs for Facebook and Instagram, working with a global developer network that ranged from innovative startups to large software partners, such as Salesforce, IBM and Oracle. I had a unique opportunity to work with innovative technology hubs, including Silicon Valley, Silicon Wadi (Israel) and Zhongguancun (China). When I looked around the world for the best place to build my new company, I felt as if Canada – with the emergence of the Toronto-Waterloo corridor and growing ecosystems in Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, Edmonton and Halifax – had all of the raw materials to be a world leader in AI.
I don't accept the argument that Canada can't win on a global stage.
Silicon Valley was built by government, academia and entrepreneurial communities moving together in lockstep toward a common goal with a clear focus. Decades before the emergence of the software and Internet services industries, Silicon Valley got its name based on the large cluster of semiconductor (silicon chip) companies in the area in the 1970s. That clear industry focus combined with a world-class research institute and growing venture capital community attracted entrepreneurs and trained the next generation of technology talent.
We have that opportunity here if we can focus on building the AI community. We already have some of the building blocks in academia, including two of the godfathers of deep learning (an advanced area of AI) in Geoffrey Hinton (University of Toronto) and Yoshua Bengio (MILA), as well as Richard Sutton (Amii), a founding father of reinforcement learning. We've had leaders in business, academia and government join forces to help define actionable road maps, such as Tech North and its advocacy for a Waterloo-Toronto technology supercluster report. And we have a diverse, tech-savvy country filled with entrepreneurial talent and strong business leaders.
That said, there are still risks ahead. Canada will not be a world leader in all fields of technology, so it is incumbent on us to be clear to the rest of the world as to where we are placing our bets. We can't play "not to lose," we need to play to win if we are to compete for global industry leadership in a hyper-competitive field. We also need a simple, aspirational mission around which to unify as a country, similar to JFK's famous 1962 speech in which he said the United States is going to the moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard and "because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills."
I'm not back in Canada to build AI's equivalent of a great space shuttle, I'm here to help our country put a person on the moon. I think Canada can be a global leader in AI, which the Tech North report suggests can add $17.5-billion to our annual GDP and 170,000 new jobs by 2025.
AI has been likened to the discovery of electricity, in its wide-scale ability to affect all people and businesses. As with other major technology advances, we need to work through important ethical, legal and privacy issues, but we have already seen AI applied to help with early detection of cancer, seamless language translation and computer vision for the blind.
At Facebook, there are posters that read "This journey is 1 per cent finished," recognizing that as much as we have accomplished, there was much more to do in order to achieve our ambitious mission of connecting the world. I feel the same way about the work we have to do in Canada to establish ourselves as a global leader in AI, a top destination for talent and the incubator for the next Google, Facebook or Apple.
There has been great work done by a lot of people here to get us to this position. I've moved back to Canada to play my part. Our journey is 1 per cent finished, but the future is bright.