AI_robot at office in page

Canadian researchers have long been technology pioneers, developing everything from mobile phones to Internet modems to satellite communications. We haven’t, however, had much success when it comes to turning those brilliant insights into made-in-Canada corporations.

With a $5.5-million endowment, the new NextAI initiative — announced in late January 2017 in Toronto — aims to keep Canadians at the commercial core of the revolutionary new science of artificial intelligence. It’s a cross between a prize and a boot camp for AI entrepreneurs.

The NextAI partnership will bring together researchers, investors and business minds to build on the commercial ideas emanating from AI. It will partner with some of Canada’s leading schools. “AI is a fundamental capability and tool that we need to harness across all industries for our long-term competitiveness, our long-term productivity,” said Dave McKay, President and CEO of RBC at the kickoff event.

The idea emerged from an innovators’ retreat last summer hosted by McKay and Don Walker, the CEO of Magna International, that brought together some of Canada’s top executives and entrepreneurs to see what the country needs most. Both companies are now founding corporate partners.

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The program is the first of its kind in Canada, and aims to bring global AI talent and entrepreneurs to Toronto, where they’ll work with corporate, academic and technology partners. Through a competitive selection process, the teams will receive up to $200,000 in funding, mentorship and office space to pursue commercial applications of artificial intelligence.

Since launching recruitment in late October, applications have come in from over 20 countries including Ecuador, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, Mexico and Scotland.

It was University of Toronto professor Geoffrey Hinton who kick-started the current AI boom in 2012 when he produced a new algorithm that clobbered the competition in an image-recognition contest. University of Alberta research Richard Sutton laid the research groundwork for the program that helped a computer teach itself the ancient Chinese game Go, and then defeated many of the world’s top players. Université de Montréal professor Yoshua Bengio has built his city into an international destination for AI researchers.

One of the core objectives of NextAI is to reverse what some have already dubbed a “brain drain” of top AI innovators and scientists out of Canada. Even Hinton has taken a position with California-based Google.

“Somebody is going to come up with best solution,” said Magna CEO Walker. “Why not Canada?”

Unlike previous innovation initiatives, McKay said Canadian businesses will be at the forefront of AI research. “We come up with some of the best ideas in the world. We just don’t scale well.” He said banks have trust with consumers and high-quality data that are much more useful for optimization than that held by social media companies or other online providers.

Despite the humble Canadian beginnings of the current AI boom, building machine intelligence into the economy is now being discussed by businesspeople and politicians around the world.

McKay said the government has a role to play in terms of supporting the early-stage research and financing the development of centres of expertise. “But a sustainable ecosystem needs the private sector bringing solutions to market,” he added.

As Senior Vice President, Office of the CEO at RBC, John Stackhouse is responsible for interpreting trends for the executive leadership team and Board of Directors with insights on how these are affecting RBC, its clients and society at large. Prior to this, John was editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail (2009-14), editor of Report on Business, the newspaper’s national editor, foreign editor and its foreign correspondent based in New Delhi, India (1992-99).