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Why I’ve Become an AI Optimist

If, like me, you prefer the man plus machine scenario, then grab a place at the table. There are seats – but they’re filling up fast.

By James Nunns

There’s much to fear about our AI future. For a start, we face a future where many believe the only path forward is man versus machine. In this scenario humans are replaced by machines that think for themselves. This is the future depicted in films like Ex Machina and Her.


Aaron Rosland, Counsellor (Commercial – Ontario), High Commission of Canada

It is also a future we’re told will gobble up as many as 7 million jobs in the next five years. In fact, if we’re to believe the latest World Economic Forum data, 65 per cent of children entering primary school today will be working in jobs that don’t currently exist.

For young people, it is a daunting prospect. Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer data found that nearly 6 in 10 young people are worried they won’t have the right skills to build careers in a more automated world.

The future looks bleak in this scenario.

But more and more, we are seeing a future where man plus machine is becoming a way of life; where everything in our daily lives from healthcare to banking can be augmented. It’s the future where thousands of new jobs are made not eliminated, a future where AI is additive; contributing as much as £654 a year to the Exchequer, according to the latest Accenture figures.

It’s the future being written right now in Ontario, Canada.

Two weeks ago, Britain’s own Geoff Hinton, the godfather of deep learning, unveiled the Vector Institute – a nearly $200m (CAD) institute located in Toronto, Ontario, whose raison d’être is to identify new business models for AI so that it can support and sustain economic growth.

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Digital pioneering runs deep in the Hinton family. He is the great-great-grandson of George Boole, whose “Boolean algebra” has become a bedrock of digital computing.

A computer scientist at the University of Toronto, Hinton has been working on deep learning since the 1970s. He’s responsible for developing many of the AI techniques that allow machines to learn tasks by analysing large amounts of data. In fact, many of his students have gone on to become principal architects in the field today, swelling the ranks of Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft.

Vector is Hinton and others’ attempt to make Toronto the AI capital of the world. It’s an ambitious move, but Ontario’s tech industry is growing, and the province is fast becoming a leader in artificial intelligence.

It doesn’t take long to tally up Ontario, and Canada’s AI successes thus far. Technologies found in Facebook’s facial recognition algorithms, Google’s Photos app, smartphone voice recognition and even Japanese robots were all developed in Canadian research labs. Meanwhile fledgling ideas are getting equal weighting. Take the example of Facebook executive, Steve Irvine, who recently made the decision to leave Silicon Valley for Toronto to start a company,, focused on applied artificial intelligence.

Part of the secret to Canada’s success is their public-private partnership models. Vector itself is a collaboration between the University of Toronto, the governments of Ontario and Canada, and a mix of private partners including Google, Accenture, and all five of Canada’s big banks. The model, which focuses on integrating AI into Canada’s economic future, is an effort to bridge the gap between university research and companies like Google to help commercialise research and connect companies with top talent.

It’s this pool of talent that Silicon Valley has been fighting over for quite a few years. University of Toronto professor, Ajay Agrawal, noted a little over a year ago, that Canada was at risk of losing its top talent to the US. Vector is one way of reversing the brain drain.

Ontario’s universities are already among the best in the world, but Vector will help those universities recruit and retain scientific talent and train hundreds of graduate students, and expand our reach with the next generation of AI entrepreneurs.

Finally, and this is where I have a role to play as the Commercial Counselor for Ontario in the UK, is helping to market Ontario internationally as both a source and a destination for AI.

In an economy prized for resource extraction, AI is the new frontier. Few outside of the research community realise Ontario’s credentials in producing some of the world’s top AI talent, but more importantly the opening of the Vector Institute is an opportunity to show people that we’re more than a training ground, we’ve become a destination, and a world-leading one at that, for commercialisation. The province is already home to nearly 200 AI-enabled companies, with many more to follow.

AI is pushing boundaries and breaking new ground every day. That can frighten us, or we can choose to embrace it and be empowered by the new potential for our businesses and ultimately our daily lives. If, like me, you prefer the man plus machine scenario, then grab a place at the table. There are seats – but they’re filling up fast.

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