ADIT North America

Canada is a leader in AI, but we are in danger of squandering our lead

December 12, 2023

Erin O’Toole is the president and managing director of ADIT North America, and the former leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.

News about artificial intelligence (AI) pioneer Sam Altman’s firing and rehiring by the board of directors of OpenAI gripped global news coverage. If there is an existential battle for the future of AI, Sam Altman has been the man in the arena. But this compelling plot line isn’t the only reason the story has had such broad appeal. The simple truth is that everyone from Silicon Valley to the capitals of our G7 allies know that AI is poised to revolutionize the economy and change the fundamental nature of work. Yet Canada’s Fall Economic Statement was silent on it.

Canada is a leader in AI. Canadian professors such as Geoffrey Hinton, Yoshua Bengio and Richard Sutton are considered AI pioneers, and clusters of innovation have sprung up around them on campuses in Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton, respectively. Add to that our strong innovation hubs in Waterloo, Ont., Ottawa and Vancouver and you can understand how a recent Deloitte study ranked Canada as the top country in the world for concentration of AI talent and the third-best country for per capita venture capital investment.
Canada has the talent and the capital to compete, but we must do more to help the sector, especially as Britain and the United States double-down with their own investments.

Our two main competitors were staking their AI claims in November. At the beginning of the month, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hosted the world for an AI summit and announced a $500-million-dollar investment in the sector. The U.S. is already the leader in AI after a decade of investment and recruiting by Silicon Valley, and they have decided that the AI sector is critical for their economic and security future. But Canada? Not a single word about AI when the government had the chance to show its importance. What a missed opportunity to showcase and expand our position as an AI powerhouse.

In response, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce called on the government to “leverage the great potential for AI to increase productivity and compete on the global stage,” adding that “there is a great need for further investment in the adoption and commercialization of AI in the marketplace to strengthen Canada’s economy in a time of fierce international competition.”

A few years ago, I debated Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about his claim that Canada needed to show some “swagger” on the world stage. Boy, would I like to see some swagger on AI at this critical time. There are two ways we can get there.

First, we need to get in the “compute” game. This is what Britain is doing to compete, so we need to raise the stakes and make the largest investment ever by a government in this resource. “Compute” refers to the power that a supercomputer can bring to processing large amounts of data to solve increasingly complex problems. Compute power is an already incredibly scarce commodity and demand is beginning to explode. This is an essential commodity that we need to secure for the future, just as much as critical minerals. The federal government must use its immense purchasing power to ensure that Canadian players have swift and sufficient access to compute power to maintain their competitive advantage.

The second thing we must do is build an ecosystem around this compute resource that supports the growth of our AI sector while continuing to foster our world-leading talent pool. Federal and provincial governments should align on this priority to ensure that universities and research institutes can continue to create new “pioneers” using this compute advantage, while also ensuring our world-class AI innovators in the private sector have access for their growth into the future. This will create a cycle of developing and deploying Canadian AI talent and let us continue to lead.

A strategic investment is how the U.S. government helped build Silicon Valley. Canada needs its own. Now is time to show some digital swagger and a major investment in compute power is the way to do it.