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 State, Provincial and International Reviews 
Wednesday, May 30 2018
An Intelligent Move: Cultivating Top Talent in Ontario for AI Research & Development

By Jens-Michael Schaal, Consul and Senior Economic Officer, Ontario International – New York Trade and Investment Office

When machines learn at an ever-rapid pace, how do people cultivate their own skills to make tomorrow’s advances even more remarkable?

Across Ontario, companies are using artificial intelligence (AI) to achieve what used to be unthinkable. In medicine, one start-up is developing a noninvasive AI alternative to painful biopsies for earlier detection of skin cancer; another—founded by two University of Toronto grad students—is creating an AI platform to diagnose dementia and related conditions more efficiently. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Toronto recently discovered 6,000 new craters on the moon, of all things, thanks to neural network technologly.

Caption: Ontario’s focus on cultivating partnerships across both the public and private sectors has grown the number of AI-advanced software firms to more than 300 since 2015.


Clearly, computers are becoming more and more capable, and that means there’s a growing need for people with not just the vision, but also the skills to take this technology into the next frontier. According to a recent New York Times article, “…there is a shortage of talent, and the big companies are trying to land as much of it as they can. Solving tough AI problems is not like building the flavor-of-the-month smartphone app.”

The combination of skills involved in developing such technology is complex, including math, machine learning, data science, robotics and computer programming. It’s not easy to find those skills concentrated in a single place, but increasingly, companies big and small are finding a thriving source for that scarce talent in Ontario.

Whether it’s a 15-employee startup like Acerta Analytics Solutions Inc., which is building the technology behind driverless cars, or the world’s largest cosmetics company, L’Oréal, which recently acquired a University of Toronto software program that uses AI to create facial visualizations, there’s an influx of technology companies heading to Ontario in search of top talent.

Amazon included Toronto on its shortlist of potential locations for its second headquarters, seeing the potential the region brings. If Amazon expands to Ontario, it would join world leaders in big data and cloud computing, data centers, microelectronics, digital media, security encryption, mobile gaming, mobile payments, wireless, telecom and networks, as well as seven of the 10 largest tech companies in the world.

Overall, the number of AI-advanced software firms in Ontario has grown to more than 300—and Canadian job opportunities have increased by nearly 500 percent since 2015. Across the province, the information and communication technology sector employs more than 281,700 people, and the city of Toronto added more tech jobs in 2015 than both New York City and San Francisco combined.

That’s not surprising, given that modern AI was pioneered at the University of Toronto's Machine Learning Program, which continues to fuel new discoveries. But several other factors are driving this trend, making Ontario one of “the biggest hubs in the world for this kind of technology," according to Gonen Hollander, Chief Operations Officer at Acerta.

A Government Priority: Investing in Technology of the Future
In late March, the government of Ontario released its 2018 budget, setting the stage for continued growth of the sector. The budget commits more than $350 million toward the AI industry, including advanced computing and quantum technologies, autonomous vehicles and 5G wireless communications. The budget also includes $15 million over the next three years for an organization known as NextAI, an accelerator that supports AI-based start-ups.

Ontario’s 2018 budget is a continuation of an effort begun a year ago, when the government expanded its investment in the Business Growth Initiative to support research and development of next-generation technologies in areas including advanced computing at the Universities of Toronto and Waterloo, autonomous vehicles with Ontario’s Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network, and quantum technologies with Waterloo's Quantum Valley Ideas Lab. The government’s continued investments in AI give companies that settle here ready access to a hotbed of R&D—and a growing base of skilled employees.

Cultivating Tomorrow’s AI Talent
To further expand the talent pool, this year’s provincial budget includes an additional $30 million investment to foster the development of the next generation of AI innovators. These funds—in addition to $100 million committed in 2017—are earmarked specifically to create new graduates with the skills needed to succeed in a rapidly evolving AI industry, through the famed Vector Institute in Toronto. Led by Geoffrey Hinton, the “Godfather of Deep Learning,” the Vector Institute trains, attracts and retains top researchers who want to lead the world in machine learning and deep learning research. The institute enables these researchers to explore new ideas, while having the flexibility to work on commercial applications with companies or in their own startups.

Alongside these government incentives, a number of academic institutions with the resources to cultivate advanced AI skills have made Ontario a key destination for learning. Ontario’s 44 colleges and universities produce more than 40,000 new graduates in STEM each year. The province has committed to boosting this number to 50,000 per year over the next five years, with a special focus on AI.

To encourage students to pursue advanced degrees in related fields, the government of Ontario announced last October that it is investing $30 million to facilitate work with academic institutions across the province to grow the number of professional Applied Master’s graduates in artificial intelligence. The program aims to graduate 1,000 Applied Master’s students in AI-related fields per year within five years.

With the rise of AI in Ontario, students will have more choices than ever to explore the field. In February 2018, the University of Toronto Engineering program announced that it would offer new courses in Machine Intelligence and Data Analytics. This course offering comes as the University has seen “very strong demand, both from interested students and from the industries that require this kind of expertise,” according to Professor Deepa Kundur (ECE), chair of the Faculty’s Engineering Science program.

Recognizing the need to translate academic skills into hands-on knowledge, Ontario offers apprenticeship programs for more than 150 skilled trades involving robotics in multiple sectors, including construction, manufacturing and automotive. The government of Ontario also recently announced that it is supporting projects that will connect college students with businesses to tackle R&D challenges and launch new products and services through the Colleges Applied Research and Development Fund.

“This is where AI is," said Dr. Farnoud Kazemzadeh, CEO and co-founder of the local start-up Elucid Labs. "The talent that comes out of secondary and post-secondary educational institutions in Ontario and Canada is what we want to draw from."

Caption: Dr. Iman Khodadad and Dr. Farnoud Kazemzadeh, co-founders of Toronto's Elucid Labs, are using artificial intelligence to diagnose early onset of melanoma and other skin conditions.


A Welcoming Business Environment
Companies like Elucid that set up shop in Ontario will find one of the most supportive business environments. The government provides competitive business costs and generous tax incentives; the corporate income tax rate of 26.5 percent (provincial and federal combined) is markedly lower than in other countries.

Perhaps one of the area’s most enticing features is its work visa program. In some countries, applying for a visa to bring a talented computer programmer from abroad can be a months-long process; but last June, the Canadian government started a new program to issue work permits and temporary visas in two weeks rather than two years. This enables companies to recruit a wider net of highly-skilled workers from around the world, all within days.

"This is one of the world's pre-eminent cities for machine learning and it tends to attract a lot of smart people," said Liam Kaufman, CEO of WinterLight Labs, a start-up based in Toronto.

With Brains Like These, Who Knows What We’ll Create Next?
R&D experts from multinational companies like Google, Microsoft and GM, as well as more than 300 start-ups, are heartily cranking away in Ontario, elevating the possibilities of artificial intelligence into reality. Some of the world’s smartest brains have come here to revolutionize our lives in the same way electricity did more than a century ago. Their work across more than 15 sectors—automotive, financial services, media and advertising, healthcare, agriculture, professional services and clean technology, among others—is sure to transform business, social and community life for generations to come. Here in Ontario, we’re harnessing the power of machine learning by making human learning a distinct priority, too.

Bio: Jens-Michael Schaal is the Consul and Senior Economic Officer (SEO) for the Ontario International – New York Trade and Investment Office. In his role, Jens-Michael works to strengthen commercial ties between Ontario and the Northeastern United States, with a focus on supporting U.S. businesses expanding into Ontario.

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