Artificial Intelligence
The power, promise and challenge
Dr. Matthias Ruth
Research and Innovation
University of Alberta

Artificial intelligence (AI) will have profound impacts on society, changing the way we do business and the world in which we live. According to Deloitte, worldwide AI spending is estimated to reach US$78 billion by 2022 – creating worldwide business value of US$3.9 trillion.

As a result, the global race is on and at a breakneck pace. To date, 23 countries have created national AI programs, each with its own special focus but all sharing the expectation of full impact across most social, political and industrial organizations. Japan’s program has a social industrialization roadmap. Germany speaks of “Industry 4.0.” China expresses an ambitious plan to lead the world. Among all, Canada was the first to release an AI strategy, building on the global leadership of Canadian researchers in AI and machine learning.

The common theme of all these strategies: AI will redefine what is possible and create an opportunity to restructure society to be stronger, more resilient and sustainable.

In 2017, the federal government invested $125 million to develop a pan-Canadian AI strategy to further build our capacity and expertise. The strategy focuses on three premier institutes – in Eastern Canada, the Montréal Institute for Learning Algorithms (Mila), the Vector Institute in Toronto, and in Edmonton, the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii), connected to the University of Alberta.

Investments in AI and machine learning are paying off. Since 1990, the University of Alberta has consistently ranked third globally for AI, machine learning and data mining ( International AI research company, DeepMind, built its first international AI research lab in Edmonton. Many others followed, including large, small and international companies seeking the expertise to build their competitive edge. The University of Alberta continues to drive discovery research in areas such as reinforcement learning, and harnesses AI to drive innovations such as precision health solutions for faster, better cancer detection, rapid identification of new drugs, and smart, responsive bionic limbs. New companies exploiting AI have spun out of the university and sprung up in the region. Instead of graduates going abroad, more are staying and working in highly skilled jobs that did not exist a decade ago.

While exciting, Canada’s position as a global leader is not assured. Canada must work together – universities, governments and the corporate sector – to capitalize on our strengths and preserve the gains we’ve made. As the global AI race intensifies, the question will be how Canada can continue to compete with staggering capital investments in China, the United States and Europe.

Two answers seem obvious. First, Canada’s ongoing research will make us a hub for global developments and a place for the best and brightest to learn and work. As the whole world scrambles to identify and mobilize AI talent, we’ve already got one of the best scientific research foundations on the planet. Continuing to invest in talent development is a smart and efficient way of ensuring that more jobs, prosperity and economic spinoffs continue here.

Second, we must carefully direct scarce resources towards existing strengths – including health care, finance, energy, environment, transportation and agriculture. AI has the potential to revolutionize these sectors. With focused investment, these sectors will become even more competitive, while also securing Canada’s reputation as a global AI leader. Breakthroughs could be Canada’s next great export.

Over the next decade, AI will reshape our economies, society and environment. Continued investment will be critical, but we need to do more. Canadian governments, industry and universities must work together to identify and exploit opportunities where Canada can play a leadership role in redefining the future.