Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/4/2016 (410 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Pop quiz: is the following statement true or false?
Canada is the birthplace of a transformative technology set to disrupt countless industries and potentially lead the next wave of global economic growth.
Most Canadians aren’t aware of it, but artificial intelligence (more specifically its subset, deep learning) — the inspiration for scores of dystopian science-fiction movies — is a made-in-Canada technology that will become profoundly important over the next few years.
Deep learning was the name given to a group of complex mathematical models that came out of the University of Toronto in 2006. In a nutshell, the technology mimics the neural networks of a human brain, giving machines the capacity to learn on their own and discover previously undetectable patterns within massive data sets.
This event put Canada in a leadership position in a hugely important field and has given the nation a window of opportunity to diversify its economy. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in January at a world forum in Davos, Switzerland: it is time the world "knew us for our resourcefulness" in addition to our natural resources.
At Sightline Innovation, our chief science officer recently discovered the artificial intelligence (AI) technology we created to vastly improve the quality-control process for manufacturers could be applied at the nano-scale to inspect microbiological processes. We sought out the world’s best place to evolve this concept, and within a year, we moved operations to Winnipeg from Toronto in order to be near the National Microbiology Laboratory, a world leader in halting the global spread of infectious disease.
Over the next few years, Manitoba is set to lead the way in innovation as Canada’s technology industry booms. But relative performance over other provinces on the current trajectory is not enough.
Canada’s economy is at a crossroads. As commodities continue to suffer due to cyclical weakness, it is increasingly left out of evolving global supply chains, and other countries overtake it in the global information and innovation economy.
However, Canada can capitalize on the current commodity downdraft if it uses it as an opportunity to lock in AI leadership and pivot toward an economic model that is not only more sustainable but one that will put Canada on the map as a global innovator and a leader in the commercialization of innovations.
A friend of mine recently spoke with undergrads from one of Canada’s top engineering programs (something he does regularly). When he asked who among them was planning to start a business to try and commercialize their ideas, for the first time, the answer was no one. They all had jobs lined up in Silicon Valley.
While many Americans recognize Canada as a great place to invest, U.S. tech companies know Canada — and Manitoba in particular — is a great place to poach talent.
So Canada is investing in educating its top minds who then flock to Silicon Valley and have U.S.-based investors reap the rewards. How do we fix this?
We need to capture the opportunity in AI in a way that offers labour-market participation at all levels. We need to modernize existing sectors such as agriculture, medical, transportation and resources. We need to take the investments the Canadian taxpayer has made in academia and incubators, and we need to add a third key ingredient of commercialization investment to make the next billion-dollar company and then make 10 more billion-dollar companies behind it. On a per capita basis, we should have 10 per cent of the innovation economy market capitalization of the U.S. markets based on relative population (a simplistic, but fair target).
Manitoba is the perfect place for it.
The local community is forming the Enterprise Machine Intelligence and Learning Initiative to chase the commercialization mission around AI in a way that can include all sectors from entry-level labour to top global researchers and indigenous peoples. In its 2016 Manitoba Bold document, the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce and other community leaders have added their support, recognizing the transformative power of the initiative. I encourage my fellow Manitobans to do everything they can to support it. We need this initiative, not just for the local economy but for Canada.
As the sun slowly sets on the carbon economy, we need new blood in the fight to keep Canada a leader in AI — the technology that is going to drive more wealth creation in the next 20 years than any other innovation. We can’t drill, mine, cut or extract our way out of this situation; we need to innovate our way out of it.
Wally Trenholm is CEO and founder of Sightline Innovation, a tech company specializing in machine learning.