October 12, 2016      

Of the countries that are actively developing artificial intelligence, Canadian AI may not be the first that comes to mind, but Canada has its advantages.

Canada has long been a technology leader. Even with a population of just 35 million people, the Canadian technology industry has grown to become one-third the size of California’s. Major high-tech companies have used Canadian AI innovations, such as Facebook for facial recognition and Google for photos.

In the future, Canadian AI might be responsible for fueling the Canadian robotics industry as a whole, since it has been slowing down.

In 2014, robot sales in Canada increased 4 percent or 2,300 units, but this is lower than sales in 2005 and 2007 of 3,000 units each.

In 2012, Canada purchased 1,749 industrial robots, compared with the 22,414 purchased in the U.S. and the 2,106 purchased by Mexico. In the same year, robot density in Canada was at 103, making Canada the 14th in the world when it comes to robot density.

As the push to develop artificial intelligence and related applications intensifies, it could help Canada remain a robotics leader. It is one of the few new and emerging AI powers that remains largely untapped by the global community (with the exception of the U.S.). Is this an opportunity for you?

Canadian AI’s origins

Some of the first seeds of Canadian AI leadership were planted 12 years ago. Fifteen people met in a Vancouver hotel in 2004, recalled The Financial Post. This group, made up of computer scientists, professors, and more eventually received $10 million from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) to research “artificial neural networks” over 10 years.

Since then, Canadian AI has emerged in different forms — most of it led by academia and the private sector. All of these developments revolve around a central idea: “How can AI solve existing problems?”

Canadian AI research includes healthcare applications such as Ludwig for the elderly.

UoT’s Ludwig is designed to recognize memory problems in the elderly.

Late last year, a group of students at the University of Toronto (UoT) developed Ross, an AI service for the legal industry. Instead of going through stacks of papers, attorneys can ask Ross questions and receive answers on their desktops.

In July , a Toronto-based retirement home tested a robot called Ludwig from UoT. Ludwig is intended to help identify and track memory-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. It pays attention to health signs like changes in speech.

Private agents use Canadian AI

The private sector is also taking steps to fuel artificial intelligence in Canada.

In the province of British Columbia, Purple Forge Corp. is working with IBM Watson to create AI research assistants to answer residents’ questions about municipal services.

In May, Purple Forge tested its service in Surrey, a suburb of Vancouver. The company has also partnered with telecommunications provider Telus to bring Purple Forge to Western Canada.

Another AI offering comes from Responsive Wealth Management, also in British Columbia. It launched an advisory service across Canada that compiles data on factors including macroeconomic conditions and provides suggestions on how to adjust a client’s portfolio.

Manulife, a Canada-based multinational specializing in insurance and financial products, signed a deal with Nervana Systems to develop an “artificial intelligence and deep learning” tool to compile and distill huge amounts of financial data to help with investment planning.

As a sign of the recognition of AI’s increasing importance, Intel Corp. acquired Nervana in August for $350 million to $400 million, according to reports.

More on Canadian AI and Global Robotics:

Taking the next step toward commercial AI

Canadian AI is growing with help from academia and the private sector. With applications in healthcare, municipal services, and finance, there should be little doubt about the capabilities and potential of artificial intelligence in the world’s second largest country.

But there is one missing piece. If many Canadian AI advances are taking place in universities or academic incubation hubs such as Ryerson University’s DMZ, how will these innovations leave the drawing board and reach the market?

Universities can only support so many researchers and projects as once, so a huge number of ideas might never see the light of day. Is this an opportunity for robotics companies or venture capital firms to begin scouting campuses across Canada?

There’s also uncertainty as to whether the Canadian AI market will follow the country’s industrial automation sector. Will it slow down? And if so, why?

One way it can keep growing is by finding a niche. For example, how can Canadian AI be harnessed for natural resources, agriculture, or space applications — staples of the nation’s economy?

Canada faces big technical, economic, and competitive challenges if it wants to become a global AI leader. There is also the question of what role the government is playing. We’ll explore all of this and more in my next article.