Que­bec urged to boost AI fund­ing or risk los­ing edge

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - NI­CO­LAS VAN PRAET MON­TREAL

The Que­bec gov­ern­ment’s eco­nomic ad­vi­sory coun­cil is call­ing on the prov­ince to quin­tu­ple its in­vest­ment in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to $500-mil­lion over the next decade, warn­ing its nascent power in ma­chine learn­ing will be at risk if it does not boost fund­ing.

The Con­seil con­sul­tatif sur l’économie et l’in­no­va­tion, which in­cludes 32 of the best busi­ness minds in the prov­ince – such as Na­tional Bank chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer Louis Va­chon and Én­er­gir pres­i­dent So­phie Brochu – says AI’s po­ten­tial is a gamechanger for Que­bec’s $400-bil­lion econ­omy. But the coun­cil says the prov­ince needs to com­mit far more money to get last­ing ben­e­fit from the in­dus­try and adds that the pri­vate sec­tor needs to be more open to AI’s prac­ti­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties and get more in­volved.

“The world’s big­gest AI names are in­vest­ing in Que­bec. While our lead­er­ship is real, it is also frag­ile,” the coun­cil says in its ac­tion re­port, to be re­leased on Thurs­day and shared in ad­vance with The Globe and Mail. “Que­bec must ramp up its am­bi­tions and act quickly to ex­pand its ex­per­tise and de­velop the use of AI so­lu­tions to en­sure this niche takes root and to max­i­mize its spinoffs.” The rec­om­men­da­tion is one of 12 in the 40-page blue­print for eco­nomic im­prove­ment. It stands out for its su­perla­tives, high­light­ing the be­lief among Que­bec’s cor­po­rate lead­ers that the power of cog­ni­tive tech­nolo­gies, and what the prov­ince has al­ready built to fur­ther their devel­op­ment, can al­ter its fate.

“Ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence rep­re­sents his­toric eco­nomic po­ten­tial for Que­bec,” they con­clude. “The po­ten­tial is so daz­zling, and Que­bec’s lead­er­ship so promis­ing, that ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence could, by virtue of its spin-offs, gen­er­ate new wealth ca­pa­ble of mit­i­gat­ing the eco­nomic im­pact of an ag­ing pop­u­la­tion.

Coun­tries and com­pa­nies across the world have started in­vest­ing mas­sively in build­ing AI-re­lated com­pe­tency, with the Euro­pean Union com­mit­ting the equiv­a­lent of $1.2-bil­lion to de­velop the tech­nol­ogy over the next five years and the United States ex­pected to spend even more. Google’s ac­qui­si­tion of startup Deep­Mind Tech­nolo­gies for US$500-mil­lion in 2014 was only one deal in a wider race by tech com­pa­nies to beef up their AI ca­pa­bil­ity.

Que­bec has been a lo­cus of AI ac­tiv­ity, par­tic­u­larly in the field of deep learn­ing – ba­si­cally train­ing com­put­ers to learn like hu­mans. The prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tions of this niche are nu­mer­ous, from voice recog­ni­tion to com­put­ers read­ing X-rays with greater pre­ci­sion than the hu­man eye.

The prov­ince has one of the world’s lead­ing re­searchers in the field, Yoshua Ben­gio, and two world-class deep learn­ing re­search in­sti­tutes: the In­sti­tute for Data Valoriza­tion (IVADO) and Mr. Ben­gio’s Mon­treal In­sti­tute for Learn­ing Al­go­rithms (MILA). In a bid to af­firm the bloom­ing sta­tus of Que­bec and Canada glob­ally, the provin­cial gov­ern­ment last year an­nounced the cre­ation of an AI in­dus­trial clus­ter, with an op­er­at­ing bud­get of $100-mil­lion over five years. Ot­tawa pledged an­other $40-mil­lion for Que­bec through its own pan-Cana­dian AI strat­egy.

That’s good – but it’s not enough, the eco­nomic ad­vi­sory coun­cil says. It says Que­bec’s cur­rent AI ecosys­tem is frail, com­prised of no more than 200 peo­ple the world wants to steal away. “We need to give depth to this sec­tor and po­si­tion our­selves ag­gres­sively, not only as the place for knowl­edge devel­op­ment but also as the first users of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence,” the re­port says.

The coun­cil rec­om­mends Que­bec pony up an­other $400-mil­lion, to be paid out over 10 years. It says $100-mil­lion of that should go to MILA and IVADO and $150mil­lion should be spent on ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing pro­grams to pro­duce 1,000 AI en­gi­neers a year. It says the bal­ance should sup­port “a pub­lic-pri­vate fund to be used for in­vest­ing in star­tups and pre­serv­ing Que­bec own­er­ship of up-and-com­ing cham­pi­ons.” This raises ques­tions, no­tably whether the gov­ern­ment would be fund­ing com­pa­nies that could ul­ti­mately be for­eign­based or open to for­eign takeovers. A sim­i­lar de­bate is cur­rently rag­ing in Que­bec over tax­payer sup­port for video-game pro­duc­ers, with crit­ics ar­gu­ing that France­based Ubisoft En­ter­tain­ment SA, the big­gest player in the prov­ince, cre­ates real wealth only in its home coun­try. Whether it makes sense to spend pub­lic money to train AI en­gi­neers who might end up work­ing abroad is also un­clear.

Premier Philippe Couil­lard’s gov­ern­ment launched the ad­vi­sory coun­cil in 2016, hop­ing a group of well-in­formed busi­ness lead­ers with di­verse per­spec­tives could come up with prac­ti­cal ways to im­prove the econ­omy with greater pri­vate­sec­tor in­volve­ment.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.