Liberals see artificial intelligence as a path to reverse stalled growth
Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains answers questions from the media at a Liberal cabinet retreat in Calgary, Alta., Monday, Jan. 23, 2017.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol
OTTAWA -- They see it as a way of saying "Hasta la vista, baby" to years of sluggish economic growth.
The federal Liberals are expected to use the upcoming federal budget to foster the development of cutting-edge artificial intelligence in the hope it will be a springboard to attracting investment and creating a highly-skilled new sector of jobs.
Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains says fostering AI is one of the pillars of the government's economic growth strategy.
He and others see an opportunity for Canada to exploit its competitive advantage in a technology that is becoming ubiquitous across all sectors -- from major companies such as Google or Microsoft to the banking and automotive sectors.
The government's vision of AI-enabled growth is not rooted in the apocalyptic science fiction of Terminator movies where robots destroy humanity (Arnold Schwarzenegger appropriated the Spanish phrase "Hasta la vista, baby" in Terminator 2: Judgement Day before sparking some spectacular explosions).
Instead, Bains and others point to two Canadian "pioneers" in AI -- Geoff Hinton at the University of Toronto and Montreal computer scientist Yoshua Bengio. They are recognized world leaders in "deep learning" or "machine learning" -- advanced algorithms that allow powerful new super computers to essentially think like humans.
The minister is also buoyed by signs of foreign capital coming to Canada such as Microsoft's recent acquisition of the artificial intelligence start up, Maluuba, based in Waterloo, Ont., and Montreal. In a recent conversation with Bill Gates, Bains said the Microsoft co-founder acknowledged that Canada was playing "a leadership role" in AI.
"We want to encourage those kinds of investments to continue, to connect with each other on a national level," said Bains.
"If companies are betting on AI, academic institutions are betting on AI, why can't government be a meaningful partner in this area as well?"
Tiff Macklem, the dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, said the government needs to take a hands-on approach to help foster the growth of AI in Canada and to keep expertise in the sector from migrating elsewhere.
"I wouldn't use the word 'picking winners'," said Macklem, a former deputy governor of the Bank of Canada.
"I would say where the market is picking a winner, the government has a larger role to play to double down on those winners and provide a path to scale up and secure a position in the global market place before anybody else does it."
The government could help support the development of AI in Canada -- and keep its experts from being lured abroad to such places as Silicon Valley -- by putting federal money into the creation of an AI institute, said Macklem.
Financial institutions and auto makers are making big investments to develop AI strategies in Canada, he said.
"It's not enough to have the leading research in the world. We have to also be leaders in commercializing that."
Macklem says AI will eventually reap great economic benefits because of its proven ability revolutionize the speed and efficiency of predictions.
The commercial applications of advanced prediction are staggering, and go far beyond common examples such as helping companies predict what people are going to buy to what stocks might be money making investments, he says.
"In the next five years, every company is going to need an AI strategy," he said.
But artificial intelligence has its detractors as well.
Renowned author and physicist Stephen Hawking told the BBC three years ago that AI could "spell the end of the human race" when machines eventually turn against their human creators.
An international coalition of non-governmental organizations has created the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots which is pushing for an international treaty to ban autonomous weapons from the battlefields of the future.
Macklem dismisses the doomsday scenarios some associate with AI.
"There's going to be a real issue about whether Canada is at the forefront of this technology or not, because it's coming," he said.
"Wouldn't you rather be a disruptor rather than the victim of disruption?"