Samsung Electronics will open an artificial-intelligence lab in Toronto on Thursday, the latest in a slew of foreign multinationals to set up research operations in Canada. The move is part of a broader push by the South Korean consumer-electronics giant to close the gap with Silicon Valley heavyweights that have snapped up machine-learning talent of late – including many Canadian-trained and Canadian-based researchers. Breakthroughs in image-recognition software by students of pioneering University of Toronto professor Geoffrey Hinton (now a Google employee) early this decade touched off a global race to develop self-teaching technology. "We are coming to [AI] later, so we're playing catch-up," said Larry Heck, co-head of global AI research with Samsung and formerly a research director at Google. "AI in terms of a priority for [Samsung] has risen to the top."
In the past 18 months, Toronto has become a magnet for artificial intelligence researchers, drawing some of the field's leading figures to set up labs here. Popular narratives suggest this brain gain will cement Canada's largest city in the top tier of global tech centres. But look beyond the hype, and warning lights are flashing that Toronto is headed in a different direction – more ivory tower than economic power. Toronto has to get better at turning its AI research into products customers want to buy – before somebody else does. Toronto has been developing a base of world-class research since the 1980s, including the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, the University of Toronto and, most recently, the Vector Institute.
Like many artificial intelligence companies in Canada, PeopleAnalytics.ai was happy to see the federal government's launch of its Pan-Canadian Artificial lntelligence Strategy for research and talent as part of the federal budget this year. The $125-million that the Liberals are committing to the project, to be administered through the Canadian Institute For Advanced Research (CIFAR), is expected to help to attract and retain top academic talent in this country. With the market for AI-related ideas and products expected to reach $47-billion by 2020, according to CIFAR, the sector has already attracted major investment from Facebook and Google, among others. For PeopleAnalytics.ai, based out of Toronto's MaRS Discovery District, Canada is at a crossroads where it has the ability to define exactly how it wants to mould its focus on AI. Mark Chaikelson, below, vice-president of product for PeopleAnalytics.ai, says the success of the government's plan, particularly in the AI clusters in Montreal, Toronto-Waterloo and Edmonton, will come down to three things: capital, customers and talent.
Canada, with nine percent of the world's forests, is a land of plenty. As well as an enviable array of natural resources, Canada also boasts incredible support for entrepreneurs, both homegrown and international. Many household names, such as Slack, Hootsuite and Shopify -- which may be mistakenly considered as U.S. products -- hail from north of the border. This proves Canada is capable of delivering on startup success. And it's no surprise that startups excel in the country. Sure, there is less access to VC funding and the persuasive call of Canada's southern neighbor, but the Canadian government is working hard to build and keep successful startup ecosystems. There is a huge selection of government aid available to small businesses, some of which includes grants that don't have to be paid back.