Building AI Leadership in Canada

How key Industry Partners of the McGill MMA see the evolution of AI and tech skills in the Canadian market

Artificial intelligence has taken over the world, and Canada is quickly emerging as the leader of the pack. With the announcement of the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy in 2017, Canada became the first country to release a national AI strategy. The strategy is founded on a partnership between the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) and the three centres of excellence: the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (AMII) in Edmonton, the Vector Institute in Toronto, and the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (Mila) in Montreal. With $125 million invested in AI and 54 industry partnerships through this strategy alone, we’ve seen massive growth in the AI landscape in Canada over the last five years.

“[AI in Canada] started maturing, I would say around 2016, where you had Element AI, Data Performers—Scale AI wasn't there yet, but they were coming,” explained Peter Croubalian, co-founder of Plus 5XP, and a Career Management Specialist for the McGill Desautels Master of Management in Analytics (MMA). “The last few years, especially with COVID—there was a common perception that, you know, 10 years' worth of digital transformation time occurred within a year. Everyone and their grandmother right now are trying to hire for digital transformation, analytics, and things like that.”

Toronto is home to the highest concentration of startups in the world, and Montreal has the highest concentration of researchers and students of deep learning in the world, with almost 9000 students in AI and related programs. Major companies in a variety of sectors are taking note and setting up offices and satellites in cities across the country.

“We have great quality of life in Canada. The universities are really strong and offer good research environments, and Canada is a growing country, right? The economy is strong. It's a good environment to just launch a startup,” said Alexandre Alle, AI Domain Expert at IBM. “When you go and you think about AI, you know that there is that huge worldwide competition. Someone from let's say, India, Iran, Brazil, with that very good curriculum is just looking for the best place to work. Canada, in that competition, [places well] because of all of those positive things such as quality of life, work-life balance as well and good labs [exist in abundance here].”

The current state of the AI landscape in Canada is more stable than ever before. Whereas in the past, there have been high periods and AI winters—periods with almost no investment in AI, with the national strategy and a whole host of investments from major players in tech and cloud services, like Google, Uber and Microsoft, things are looking up and are predicted to stay that way.

“People are starting to understand it and get educated on what can be done [with AI], what's maybe coming in the future, and to have a more realistic view,” explained Nicolas Feller, a course lecturer in the MMA and Customer Engineer at Google. “There are real business cases that can be built around AI where we can clearly say, ‘This is the value that it's going to bring.’ It's becoming much more concrete, what the business value of using AI in different business processes is becoming, which I don't think was the case three or four years ago when I started working in the field.”

Almost every field, implicates AI and analytics in its operations to some degree and knowing how to gather analytics, understand what they mean and communicate the implications of the data in a way that is easy to grasp is a vital skill to have in any industry. But, for those looking to make it big with some of those major players in AI, a Master of Management in Analytics could be the ticket.

Now, AI is really a key element for business transformation,” said Wemba Opota, Artificial Intelligence Solutions Lead at Microsoft. However, he emphasized that there is still a skill gap. There are not currently enough individuals who have the skills required to thrive in the AI space right now, and unless investments are made in re-skilling or up-skilling, there could be major issues. “That’s why I like the MMA and other programs, for more seasoned people that we don’t have enough [of].”

McGill Desautels’ MMA program offers a unique blend of technical and practical training, and students have the opportunity to obtain real-world experience through experiential projects that complement the material taught in the classroom.

We do a lot of practical stuff,” said Feller, who has his students publish rundowns of their projects on Medium in his Introduction to Artificial Intelligence and Deep Learning. “This has been super valuable, in terms of being able to show something, for example, at a job interview. It definitely helps credibility to have real projects that are out there."

Not only are companies looking to hire individuals who have the typical skillsets that an MMA can provide, but there is a real need for talent with diverse backgrounds and knowledge bases.

“We're going to need all these different types of skill sets to meet a proper AI ecosystem. I think that Montreal is a great place for that, because we have this multidisciplinary ecosystem with different universities,” said Opota.

With this projected growth in the industry and the amount of talent that will be needed to help AI in Canada flourish, a ton of buy-in from major industry players is needed and they recognize that and are already taking steps to invest in research and innovation.

“I'm happy to see this is a joint effort between Microsoft and Canada, because we're partnering with some organizations and some federal organizations to really see how Canada can become a leader,” said Opota. “Our first investment is operating our data center in Canada. [Microsoft] is one of the first organizations that said ‘You know what, let's open data centers in Canada.’ The second investment that we're making is in education, we want to help close the skill gap.”

In a similar vein, IBM works with different universities across the country in its labs, either through funding or collaboration on core research projects. In addition, they’ve launched centres for innovation, like Montreal’s Client Innovation Centre, to help train the next generation of leaders in information technology.

“Those are in Toronto, Montreal and other cities where a new student that just got their diploma and wants to start their career can work with us and we train them at the same time and help them in those sectors of innovation to actually apply AI,” explained Alle.

It’s safe to say that AI is here to stay, and we at McGill Desautels are committed to providing the best quality analytics education to shape the next wave of leaders in AI transformation in Canada.

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