Thu, Apr 13, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Canada has the cards to become center of AI enterpreneurship

By Steve Lohr  /  NY Times News Service, TORONTO

Long before Google started working on cars that drive themselves and Amazon was creating home appliances that talk, a handful of researchers in Canada — backed by the Canadian government and universities — were laying the groundwork for today’s boom in artificial intelligence (AI).

However, the center of the commercial gold rush has been a long way away, in Silicon Valley. In recent years, many of Canada’s young AI scientists, lured by lucrative paydays from Google, Facebook, Apple and other companies, have departed. Canada is producing a growing number of AI start-ups, but they often head to California, where venture capital, business skills and optimism are abundant.

“Canada is not really reaping the benefits from this AI technical leadership and decades of investment by the Canadian government,” said Tiff Macklem, a former senior deputy governor of the Bank of Canada who is dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

Now bringing AI back is a priority for the Canadian government, companies, universities and technologists.

The goal, they say, is to build a business environment around the country’s expertise and to keep the experts its universities create in the country.

And they want to build on the tenacity of veteran researchers like Geoffrey Hinton, Richard Sutton and Yoshua Bengio, who developed techniques that opened the door to remarkable improvements in an AI technology called machine learning, even as many computer scientists and the tech industry considered their work to be an unpromising backwater.

There are encouraging signs, including new government funding, big company investments, programs to nurture start-ups, and the changing habits of homegrown entrepreneurs and US venture capitalists.

In its new budget, the government of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged US$93 million to support AI research centers in Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton, which are to be public-private collaborations.

The Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Toronto, announced two weeks ago, will be one of them. The institute begins with commitments of US$130 million, about half the money coming from the national and provincial governments and the other half from corporate sponsors like Google, Accenture and Nvidia, as well as big Canadian companies like the Royal Bank of Canada, Scotiabank and Air Canada.

Hinton, who was hired by Google in 2013, but remains a professor at the University of Toronto, will serve as its chief scientific adviser.

The new institute will be in the Mars Discovery District, a cluster of buildings in downtown Toronto run by a public-private partnership, that is home to many tech start-ups including AI companies.

Major technology companies, like Google, Microsoft and IBM, are adding to their AI research teams in Canada. So are companies in other industries.

Last year, General Motors said it was going to locate one of its research and engineering hubs for self-driving cars in the Toronto suburb of Markham.

Thomson Reuters announced it would open a center for “cognitive computing” in Toronto for research into new ways professionals will use information and technologies to assist decisionmaking.

Building businesses that use AI is an economic imperative for Canada. The Canadian tech industry has stalled in recent years. Nortel, Canada’s big telecommunications equipment maker, declared bankruptcy in 2009 and was wound down over the next several years.BlackBerry, once a leader, has faded in the smartphone market.

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