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Canada raises banner of AI to boost tech industry

Toronto has gone big for artificial intelligence, aiming to draw in international talent and boost its IT industry

Toronto has gone big for artificial intelligence (AI). The city and the province of which it is part, Ontario, see a favourable conjuncture, with Brexit and Trump, and an opportunity to rival, if not best, Silicon Valley.

“Canada is having a moment. It is on the world stage,” said Aaron Rosland, a diplomat in the High Commission of Canada, in London, and the official Ontario government representative in the UK.

Indeed, Canada, he said, is a great place for even UK firms to secure access to the European Union, because of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade agreement (Ceta) set up in 2017. “There is a significant uptick in interest from UK firms because of Ceta, and because it is an entry point to the US, too,” he says.

Rosland was speaking to Computer Weekly at a recent AI summit in London, alongside Daniel Silverman, executive vice-president of Toronto Global, and Jordan Jacobs, a founder of the Vector Institute and co-head of Layer 6 AI at the TD Bank Group, where he is chief AI officer.

Jacobs is a technology and entertainment lawyer by background, and had a spell in television, where his production company partnered with Elton John to produce a music TV show hosted by Elvis Costello, Spectacle. “That featured the best interview with Lou Reed ever,” he recalled.

But now Jacobs is focused on AI, which he believes to be “the most transformative technology since electricity”.

Leading the way in AI

Jacobs co-founded AI startup Layer 6, a “prediction personalisation company that uses deep learning”, and sold it to Toronto-based TD (Toronto-Dominion) Bank in January 2018.

He also co-founded, in March 2017, the Vector Institute for artificial intelligence, the goal of which is to build on the particular strengths of the University of Toronto in this area. 

“The world has moved to AI being the leading edge of the biggest tech companies, the leadership of those comes from Toronto,” said Jacobs. “Geoff Hinton is the godfather of AI – neural nets and deep learning. His graduate students are the heads of AI at Apple, Facebook, Uber, and OpenAI. And many of the Google DeepMind and Google Brain leaders, too. They all come from this small group at the University of Toronto".

Geoffrey Hinton, a British academic, educated at Cambridge and Edinburgh, who is also a long-standing computer science faculty member at the University of Toronto, is an AI pioneer.

“Around Geoff we have built the Vector Institute, and raised C$230m – half from [the Canadian] government, half from private companies. The idea is for Vector to be the world-leading centre for research, and the leading graduate school for AI in the world,” added Jacobs.

It is affiliated with the University of Toronto, the University of Waterloo, and other Canadian universities.

The concept is to enable young academics to remain on faculty, teaching, while launching and building their own startups. “If you go to Stanford, you’ll see the faculty on leave. Vector enables academics not to have to choose [between research and teaching, and commerce],” he said.

Attracting diverse talent

Jacobs contended that Canadian AI talent was now beginning not to leave for Silicon Valley, and many who had previously left were now coming back, because of the higher standard of living in Toronto, and Ontario more generally.

“If your spouse doesn’t work in tech, what is there for them to do there [in the Valley]? Or if you want to raise kids in an affordable place, Toronto has more to offer. It’s a more inclusive culture, there is more loyalty among employees, and there is a typically Canadian humility about people. There are also more STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] graduates in Ontario than in all of California,” he said.

“Toronto has more to offer [than Silicon Valley]. It’s a more inclusive culture, there is more loyalty among employees, and there is a typically Canadian humility about people. There are also more STEM graduates in Ontario than in all of California”
Jordan Jacobs, Vector Institute

Jacobs gave the example of Uber, which has moved its computer vision research for self-driving cars to Toronto, under the guidance of Raquel Urtasun, a professor at the University of Toronto.

Silicon Valley and China will be the big ecosystems for AI in the decades to come, he believes, and he maintains Toronto can be the third.

Indeed, Valley-based venture capital firms that previously insisted Canadian startups move to California are now doing the opposite, he said, adding that Toronto now has more AI startups than any other city in the world.

“We started the effort for Vector before Brexit and Trump’s election. Those political developments have helped us. Toronto is the most multicultural city on earth, so that is attractive to, say, excellent engineering and mathematics graduates from Iran. Those people can’t get visas for the US now,” said Jacobs.

“And to have such diversity in your workforce is a real advantage for companies that want to think global, to have a genuine world view from the get-go. Silicon Valley companies think ‘US first’.”

Toronto Global’s Silverman added that 51% of Toronto residents were born outside Canada, and in the rest of Ontario it drops down to only 47%. “It speaks well to how Canada is in general, and to our immigration policies,” he said.

So, readers of Computer Weekly, shall we pack our cases?

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