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This article was published 29/3/2017 (1275 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
There may not have been any obvious wins for Manitoba in last week’s federal budget, but don’t tell that to the board members of the Enterprise Machine Intelligence and Learning Initiative (EMILI).
They will say the year-old initiative that is seeking about $100 million in funding for five years is right on track. EMILI wants to create a not-for-profit entity focused on commercialization strategies and skills training around artificial intelligence and machine-learning technologies.
The budget announced the creation of a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, with $125 million managed by a collaboration between teams of academics in Toronto, Montreal, Waterloo and Edmonton.
The fact Winnipeg was not mentioned by name among that group was not a surprise to any of the EMILI team, whose board members are a who’s-who of business and academic leaders.
EMILI board chairman Ray Bouchard said he’s undaunted.
"We are still feeling extremely positive," said Bouchard, who is the CEO of Enns Brothers.
"Deep learning, machine learning, AI (artificial intelligence) are prominent themes in the budget as it relates to innovation.
The other thing is that EMILI’s focus is around commercialization and training and skills development, and you can read that (as an area of emphasis) in the budget. From our perspective, that clearly aligns with what we are doing."
Another encouraging theme in the budget from EMILI’s perspective was the government’s focus on accelerating innovation through six super-clusters. One of those is agri-food, the sector EMILI had already declared its intention to focus on.
The budget earmarked $1.5 billion for agri-food, innovation, AI and the cluster funds. Vince Barletta — an EMILI board member and leader of the Yes! Winnipeg initiative of Economic Development Winnipeg — said, "We will see how it rolls out over the coming months. My sense is that EMILI is still very well-positioned to be supported by the Government of Canada."
The manner in which EMILI has framed the issues — the widespread impact machine learning is about to have; the fact Canadian scientists already have staked a leadership position and the significance of going about embedding the technology properly; and the need to develop skills that will be required to manage such efforts — may have had an outsized impact in the whole narrative of the budget as it relates to innovation.
"I would say the advocacy efforts by Manitoba and the wider supporters of EMILI caused a shift in the budget," said Jo Kennelly, an EMILI team member and a longtime Ottawa science policy official who is working with Sightline Innovations. The Winnipeg machine-learning company’s CEO, Wally Trenholm, effectively came up with the idea of EMILI.
"There was strong messaging around that business-led dimension to EMILI which was not there in other AI-related activities — which were still largely grounded in the universities," Kennelly said.
Pre-eminent scientists are working in machine learning at the University of Toronto, the Université de Montréal and the University of Alberta; there was no doubt they had to be included in any Canadian machine learning/AI initiative.
With such undeniable strength in the field emanating out of the traditional power centres of Canadian society, EMILI chose to focus on the agri-food sector for all sorts of good strategic reasons.
"It gives Manitoba a clear shot at securing funding for EMILI in a space where people would not turn their heads and say, ‘Why Manitoba?,’" a source close to the EMILI planning said. The initiative has strong support from the province and Manitoba members of Parliament, including Jim Carr, Manitoba’s senior cabinet minister in the Trudeau government.
"The government is working with EMILI’s partners as the project competes for innovation funding announced under Budget 2017," Carr said Tuesday.
The Trudeau government has clearly made AI and machine learning key priorities for its innovation agenda. On top of that, the agri-food sector is one of six key clusters and the one that was highlighted in last month’s second report by the Advisory Council on Economic Growth.
It puts EMILI in the sweet spot regarding Ottawa’s innovation efforts.
Kennelly said there will be a flurry of proposal writing and efforts to bring in as many of the largest players in the agri-food sector from across the country to make sure they are all involved in the process.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.
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