Some of the biggest names in tech are lining up to join Canada's burgeoning artificial intelligence sector, but harnessing the sector's full potential depends on creating homegrown tech champions, not just celebrating investments by large multinationals, warns one of the country’s godfathers of deep learning.
Canada is at the centre of research charting new ways to mine big data with implications for everything from better medical diagnoses to self-driving cars and Montreal is emerging as a hub thanks to a large concentration of available researchers in a low-cost city with great social values.
Facebook became the latest Silicon Valley giant to set up shop in the city with a Sept. 15 announcement that it would open a research lab and invest $7 million in Montreal's AI community, joining Google, Microsoft and Samsung, which all have a presence in the city.
More deals are likely on the way, according to Yoshua Bengio, considered one of the pioneers of deep learning – an AI subset that uses neural networks to mimic the way a human brain learns and adapts.
Bengio, who heads the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, one of Canada's three main AI centres of excellence, recently partnered with Samsung to open a University of Montreal lab that will focus on developing algorithms for use in voice and visual recognition, robotics, autonomous driving and translations.
He believes Canada's global stature in AI has been reinforced by its ability to attract the best researchers from around the world because of the strong connection between academic research and innovation.
However, he also warned that without developing strong domestic AI companies, intellectual property developed in Canada risks flowing across the border to the financial benefit of the U.S.
"Although these large companies coming to Montreal are contributing to the ecosystem in a beautiful way, in a few years from now we will need to have Canadian companies really leading the pack internationally for Canada to really succeed in this," he said in an interview.
It's a type of brain drain, according to Gabriel Woo, who oversees the RBC Research Institute, an artificial intelligence lab in Toronto.
"You don't see them physically crossing the border but we need to keep guarding against what I feel is a more insidious kind of brain drain which is losing IP and losing wealth creation," he said.
Others worry that by hiring university professors, multinational tech companies are limiting the training opportunities for local students to become the next AI stars.
Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains, who's leading the federal push to expand AI, said Canada can both attract foreign investment and help Canadian companies to grow.
"It's important that we develop IP in Canada, grow intellectual property in Canada and artificial intelligence in Canada and use big data to help Canadian companies succeed globally as well," he said from Ottawa.
Bains said he expects to unveil in the coming months the government's supercluster approach and its strategy to protect intellectual property.
Corporate Canada is latching onto the promise of artificial intelligence, which has been likened to a new industrial revolution in everything from engineering to banking to aerospace, but many companies are just starting to figure out the best use cases.
"Data has indeed become the new oil," Air Canada Calin Rovinescu told business leaders last week, adding that he sees AI as a way to deliver a more satisfying flying experience.
Meanwhile, SNC-Lavalin CEO Neil Bruce said the engineering giant is preparing to partner in the coming months with an artificial intelligence startup in a bid to be more efficient than the competition and sees it being put to use in a number of areas including figuring out complex analytics required to extend the life of nuclear facilities.
The head of Element AI, a Montreal AI startup factory established with Bengio, said corporations are still trying to figure out what AI means for them but want to ensure their businesses aren't left behind.
"The real motivation is about survival," said Jean-Francois Gagne, who is overwhelmed by the number of calls from corporations.
"It's the fear of new entrants or a company that will totally disrupt them."