Big brands sign on with government-backed AI institute
The Vector Institute, based in Toronto, aims to advance research and Canada's claim as a leader in the space.
Geoffrey Hinton, chief scientific adviser at The Vector Institute
Dozens of Canadian companies and advertisers have joined with the University of Toronto, the federal and Ontario provincial governments and Google on a new project designed to advance AI research and make Canada a leader in the space.
The Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence will be affiliated with the university and house 25 faculty and research scientists focused on advancing AI, machine learning and neural networks.
The institute will receive over $150 million in funding from a mix of government and corporate sources. Some of the funding is coming from the $125 million “Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy” announced in this year’s federal budget, with additional backing coming from the Ontario Government.
There are more than 30 corporate partners set to contribute a total of $80 million to the project, including Canada’s big five banks, other major financial market players, insurance companies, tech companies and a handful of retail and consumer brands. The full list includes:
- Loblaw Group
- Thompson Reuters
- Air Canada
- Georgian Partners
- Sun Life Financial
- Ellis Don
- Chan Zuckerberg Initiative
- Deep Genomics
- Layer 6 AI
- Thalmic Labs
For those who have been following the fintech space, seeing the banks invest in artificial intelligence should come as no surprise as they look to improve both customer interaction and internal capabilities. RBC and Scotiabank recently partnered on NextAI, a program that aims to support AI-focused startups with funding and access to additional resources. In addition to customer experience applications, banks have pegged AI as a tool for a number of internal processes.
“AI is an important tool for Scotiabank,” said Michael Zerbs, CTO at Scotiabank, in a release. “It is helping us to better understand customer sentiment, behaviour and needs, allowing us to better manage risk, identify abnormal account activity and provide our customers with the best strategies for improving their portfolios.”
Auto parts supplier Magna is also a partner on the NextAI venture, and the company already provides some semi-autonomous features to automakers and may be a supplier of parts for their fully-autonomous cars. Shopify, too, has ventured into the AI space, acquiring AI-powered bot company Kit last year for integration into its customers’ stores.
However, seeing companies like Loblaw and Air Canada on the list may come as a surprise, as neither has made a public investment into the artificial intelligence space, and appear to be the first Canadian companies to do so in their respective sectors.
Air Canada declined to comment on the story at this time, but in a column published in the March 2017 issue of in-flight magazine enRoute, president and CEO Calvin Rovinescu said the company was “collaborating with lead-edge companies” specializing in machine learning. Though the column was vague about which companies those were and did not specifically mention Vector, he did cite the possibilities for the technology at a company like Air Canada.
Besides “[sifting] through massive amounts of information to recognize patterns and make recommendations” internally at the company, Rovinescu points to things like automated AI assistants that could make recommendations and find information for passengers as a possible consumer-facing application that could be seen in the near-term.
Loblaw, too, was unavailable for comment for the time being, but there are clear applications for AI when it comes to recognizing patterns in things like pricing, demand and supply-chain management, as well as more consumer-facing applications like strengthening its data-heavy, personalization-focused PC Plus loyalty program.
A stated goal of Vector is to develop and attract talent to Canada as a whole – and Toronto in particular – by being a place that fosters leading-edge research. That has previously been a challenge in technology fields when competing with the big funding pool available in the U.S.
But this perception has begun to shift as Canada attempts to stake its claim as a global leader in AI. Montreal has been a major player in that shift. In addition to its own research centre (the University of Montreal’s Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, which has received investment from Google), it is also the home of the Element AI incubator, which aims to support advancements in AI by directly supporting companies and startups with Microsoft as its first investor in 2016. At the beginning of the year, Microsoft made another investment in Montreal AI, acquiring deep learning startup Maluuba.
Geoffrey Hinton (pictured at top) will lead Vector’s research team and serve as the chief scientific adviser. Hinton is considered a top academic when it comes to AI and machine learning, leading research on the subject as a professor at the University of Toronto and being hired by Google in 2013.
Image courtesy University of Toronto