Canada's Condominium Magazine

Toronto aiming to become world centre for AI research, innovation

It’s so easy these days to make every story one about Donald Trump, the man just gets so much so wrong. His top financial advisor, as reported in Forbes, said today that artificial intelligence is not a serious threat to American jobs and will not be for at least fifty or a hundred more years, and that it is not even on his radar screen. This was said just days after Canada’s government announced the setting up, in Toronto, of a new institute devoted to that very field.

The Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence will be funded by federal, provincial and private money, some of that from Google, and will be established at the MaRS Discovery District by the end of the year. Scientists, headed by U of T professor and deep learning pioneer Geoffrey Hinton, who divides his time between the university and his work at Google in California, will seek to rebuild Canada’s position as a leader in AI.

U of T professor Geoffrey Hinton will head the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

Notwithstanding British celebrity physicist Stephen Hawking’s fears that AI could spell the end of the human race when machines eventually turn against their human creators, it seems that everyone but the Trump administration realizes the importance of AI, not fifty years from now but today. AI’s algorithms, which are designed to do things that people would normally do and become smarter as they collect more data, is already widely used in consumer products like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri. Some predict that AI in machines will surpass human intelligence in as little as twenty-five years, with machines that think for themselves.

According to some US surveys, more than one-third of enterprises are already using it, and the number is forecast to increase to 62 per cent by next year. Forrester Research predicts a 300 per cent year-over-year increase in investment in AI this year.

AI, the technology that is making driverless cars, drones and voice-recognition software possible, will play an increasingly important role in cybersecurity, say experts like author Martin Ford (Rise of the Robots), where criminals are already using bots and automated attacks. Companies will have no choice but to respond in kind or be outgunned by the bad guys, who already have the lead, most would agree.

It will also become the primary way in which the banking industry interacts with consumers within the next three years, according to a survey of US banks. Ironically, a big benefit of AI in banking, as in other retail applications, is that it allows the institution to offer customers a more personalized experience, giving people the impression that the bank knows them better, the way it was when people used to go to a branch and interact with a teller or manager they knew.

Canada is considered a leader in the field, particularly the University of Toronto, according to Alan Bernstein, president and CEO of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR). Many of the country’s leading AI academics have been pursued by companies like Google and Facebook.

The downside has been a brain drain that sees many students in Canada being poached by Silicon Valley companies. Ed Clark, chair of the Vector Institute and business advisor to Premier Kathleen Wynne, told CBC news that Canada was “paying to educate people and shipping them south,” because there are few university faculty positions for them here, and many innovative companies located elsewhere. The Vector Institute hopes to change that, providing access to research in a range of fields including medicine, agriculture, and business.

Said Clark, the goals of the Vector Institute are to retain, repatriate and attract AI talent so that Canadian companies and startups can grow and become exporters of AI capability to the rest of the world. “We want Toronto, Ontario to be one of the core intellectual centres of artificial intelligence research in the world.”

Trump enters the picture yet again. Two of the researchers on the Vector team are Iranian, among the US president’s least-favoured citizens. They are not likely to leave Canada, at least not for the US.

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