"We sell to American companies and we're based in Toronto," says Jordan Jacobs, co-founder and co-CEO of Layer 6 AI, "and we keep hearing, 'Oh, of course you're from Toronto, that's where deep learning is from.' We're used to hearing 'how cold does it get in the winter time?' Or, 'how quickly do you get your kids on skates?'" adds Jacobs, "So it's nice to be getting recognition for something that most Canadians don't even realize originated here."

Jacobs, who is also a co-founder and member of the board of the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, was speaking to a packed room at the Toronto Region Board of Trade, leading a panel on AI and Innovation as a part of the SHAPE North America Summit 2017. An initiative of the World Economic Forum (WEF), the Global Shapers Community is a network of Hubs developed and led by young people with exceptional drive and potential who want to contribute to their communities.

Jordan Jacobs, co-founder of the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence

Canada's pioneering work in artificial intelligence began in Ontario

In his introduction, Jacobs offers a brief history of Canada's pioneering contribution to the field of artificial intelligence (AI), explaining the significance of the shift between rules-based AI and machine learning that originated in Ontario. "Forty years ago, the prevalent form of AI involved programmers using IF/THEN statements to teach machines," Jacobs explains. "Then there were these outliers who believed that, 'no, you're not going to program anything, the machine is going to figure it out itself, and it's going to do this by using artificial neurons that mimic how the brain works.' The leader of that group was someone named Geoffrey Hinton, and for most of his career, people said that he was crazy…They couldn't really get any funding except for a couple small research organizations in Canada, including CIFAR."

The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) that Jacobs refers to, approved its first program, Artificial Intelligence & Robotics in 1982, while operating out of an Ontario government office just a few blocks from where Jacobs is sitting, and later recruited Geoffrey Hinton to Toronto. Hinton in turn went on to lead a new program that focused on instructing computers how to 'learn,' based loosely on our understanding of how the brain learns, in a time when 'machine learning' was largely dismissed as impossible. Nonetheless, undeterred by mainstream criticism, leading scientists from around the world continued to flock to Canada to perform research into machine learning. Finally, a landmark achievement by Hinton's machine learning group at the 2012 ImageNet competition, which is the equivalent of the Olympics of computer vision, proved the skeptics wrong once and for all. A global race for the region's AI talent ensued, with alumni of Geoffrey Hinton's University of Toronto Machine Learning program going on to fill top AI R&D roles at Apple, Facebook, OpenAI and Google Brain, as well as Microsoft and Google DeepMind, among others, while Hinton himself became renowned the world over as the "godfather of deep learning."

"People who had gone into this field thinking that they would become researchers or university professors ended up getting bid on by these big companies to the point that they [were] making salaries equivalent to superstar athletes," exclaims Jacobs.

"The reason for that is the transformational nature of this technology. But a lot of people were leaving [Canada], and when we spoke to them about why they had left, it wasn't about the money, it was because there was an opportunity to do something really interesting, solve big problems, and work on big data sets."

Launch of the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence aims to retain and develop world's best AI talent

But Jacobs knew there was just as much opportunity in Canada. "We have some of the biggest banks in the world. They have massive amounts of data…that can be used not only for banking purposes. The healthcare system here, administered by the Government of Ontario, is the second largest holder of medical records in the world after NHS in the U.K. So the approach was to take an opportunity and pitch Geoffrey Hinton who is now splitting his time between the University of Toronto and Google, but is 100% back in the city here."

Jacobs and his colleagues voiced their concern over the imbalance between supply and demand of AI talent both in Canada and globally, due to big companies scooping up the field's best researchers, who would otherwise have had the opportunity to train new students. "We launched the Vector Institute at the end of March [2017] with just under $200 million committed, half from government and half from companies," says Jacobs. "Our original goal was $50 million from companies and we've just about doubled that."

Related: Ontario leads AI revolution

Vector joins similar institutes being established in Montreal and Edmonton, with Canada's strategy to promote the advancement of AI research, while ensuring that artificial intelligence has a positive social impact on Canadians, and that every Canadian citizen has a voice when it comes to dealing with ethical implications of the technology.

"Ultimately, it will be the biggest machine learning grad school in the world, but it's designed really to commercialize AI and to build an ecosystem," says Jacobs.

Are you a medium to large sized company interested in establishing an AI R&D hub in Ontario?

Contact Invest in Ontario to learn how your company can leverage the world's leading AI talent

View highlights from Shape North America Summit 2017 panel: AI and Innovation

(Courtesy of @InvestOntario)

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July 21, 2017
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