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Charting Canada’s AI future: Firms must move quick, innovate, panel says

A recent Empire Club of Canada luncheon panel explored what Canadian organizations must do to keep up with the rest of the world when it comes to developing artificial intelligence (AI) advances, and, equally important, what the fallout will be if they do not.

Sal Rabbani, chair of the organization, kicked off the presentation, entitled Charting Canada’s AI Future: How to Build a Resilient Framework for Investment, Adoption, and Economic Prosperity, by saying there is much to consider when it comes to AI – “from government and investment to the state of adoption to the unimaginable way it will impact our economy, our workplaces and our lives.”

Prior to the panel discussion, there were opening remarks from Angus Lockhart, senior policy advisor at  the Dais, a public policy think tank at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), whose subject areas include the impact emerging technologies such as AI are having, or will have, on Canada and its economy.

“When we talk about commercialization of AI at the Dais, why do we care?” he asked. “Well, we care because – and this is a problem Canada has been facing for decades – there is declining productivity growth. Back in 2022, (federal finance minister) Chrystia Freeland acknowledged that we’re falling behind when it comes to economic practice productivity, and called it both a well known Canadian problem and an insidious one.

“This has been an ongoing problem for the last two decades, and to us, AI represents a path to challenging this – it is an opportunity to fight labour shortages, while increasing productivity and bolstering Canada’s competitiveness. That is assuming that we can adapt AI successfully in businesses, and that is a big assumption.”

The challenges and opportunities Canada faces were left to the panel, moderated by Jordan Jacobs, co-founder and managing partner of Radical Ventures, a venture capital firm that focuses on AI and deep tech, and co-founder of the Vector Institute, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to AI research.

Joining him were Martin Kon, president and chief operating officer (COO) of Cohere, a Canadian tech firm that specializes in large language models (LLMs), Chris Walker, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Toronto-based chip manufacturer Untether AI, Mara Lederman, the co-founder and COO of Signal 1, an AI company that focuses on the healthcare sector, and Tony Gaffney, president and CEO of the Vector Institute.

Asked by Jacobs to describe the potential market opportunity for AI, Kon described it as the “biggest transformation and disruption to everything that the world is doing since the Mosaic browser came out in 1993, which was when the internet started to become mainstream.

“If you look at how much the world changed between 1995 and 2005, every single enterprise fundamentally changed everything they did, and those that did not, do not exist anymore. Those that did it well were extremely successful.

“The same will happen now in terms of enterprises that embrace AI, that are quick and innovate, versus those that do not.”

Lederman, formerly a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, said that it is “probably uncontroversial to say three things about AI and healthcare: one: it is probably the biggest opportunity for AI – all types of AI, not just what we’re doing – two: almost no industry is as behind as healthcare in adopting AI, and three: we all believe we’ll get there, but none of us know exactly how.

“And that’s the problem we’re trying to solve. We’re trying to build the technology system, both the actual AI applications and the underlying platform that manages those applications.”

AI, said Lederman, can be used to get people admitted into a hospital sooner or determine who should or should not walk into an emergency ward. “The opportunity for AI in healthcare is not that it is massive, it’s entirely essential.”

There is, she said, a “huge mismatch of supply and demand” when it comes to healthcare and the Canadian population, and it can not be fixed by building more hospitals and “shuffling” medical staff from one place to another. “The only answer is technology, not just AI. But AI in particular is incredibly well suited for expanding our capacity and to deliver health care to a growing number of people.”

Without the right silicon, said Walker, there is no AI, for it is the silicon that runs the AI models and is how they get deployed.

“One way that we help AI become real in the world is being able to process it faster so, for example, a street corner can be safer. Agriculture technology, you don’t think about AI, but if you can have an autonomous tractor that, instead of using pesticides, is using a laser to zap weeds. AI is necessary to do that at speed and at a pace to make it productive.

“What’s also transformative is in the generative and language model space, it has the opportunity to take small businesses and let them compete like big businesses. And this is something as important as when the internet opened the world to people. The generative tools, the things people are going to do to build and use code to build up their applications, it’s going to make them appear and compete on the world stage at a much larger scale as a startup.”

Another key angle relating to silicon revolves around what Jacobs described as “governments – the U.K. France, Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – literally buying up chips, which has never happened before.” He asked Gaffney what the federal government can do to ensure that Canada has an adequate supply of compute resources.

Governments around the world, replied Gaffney, need chips to build a national compute infrastructure that supports AI over the near to medium and long term, and also to work with research organizations, startups, and industry to ensure they can secure an adequate supply now.

“I would say that there’s no need for government in Canada to wonder what it should do, for best practices have emerged,” he said. “Other countries are acting for us and, if you think about it, it’s a national supply chain risk if we can’t get the compute we need.”

The first two questions computer science students and faculty contemplating coming to Canada now ask, he said, are “’what compute can you provide me with, and what data is going to be available to me to do my work?’

“What is at risk here is not just supply chain for what we built. The research work that we continue to lead and the talent pool that we have here is top of mind for them.”

Without adequate computing resources, said Gaffney, “people won’t come, and that’s really bad. People who are here will consider their options, and that’s really bad. And the startup community that’s flourishing around them will also consider their options as to where else they can go.

“I don’t have to continue the story. Investors have come here because of the talent pool. We just cannot let (an exodus) to happen.”

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