Engineering Professor Alex Wong speaking at panel discussion in Toronto

Waterloo Engineering Professor Alex Wong speaking at Toronto panel on tech supercluster. (photo: Brian Caldwell)

The huge potential of artificial intelligence got much of the attention as a University of Waterloo researcher joined other academics and business leaders for a panel discussion on growing the Waterloo-Toronto technology corridor into a global supercluster.

Alex Wong, a professor of systems design engineering who specializes in AI, was one of seven panelists at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto who explored why the idea should be aggressively pursued and how to make it a reality.

“If we don’t do it now, somebody else is going to do it,” said Feridun Hamdullahpur, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Waterloo, who made the closing remarks after the panel discussion on January 27. “Somebody else is going to make this baby and the baby won’t have a Canadian birth certificate.”

The lively panel discussion was prompted by a report last month that estimated developing the existing tech corridor into one of the largest in the world could create $50 billion in equity value, yield $17.5 in annual gross domestic product and create more than 170,000 well-paying jobs by 2025.

“We either go up or we go down,” Tiff Macklem, dean of the University of Toronto business school, told about 400 people at the event. “We really have no choice but to really focus on what is going to get us into the top tier, because we can’t stand still.”

Tech superclusters drive economies

Produced by consulting firm McKinsey & Company and called Tech North: Building Canada’s First Technology Supercluster, the report said high geographical concentrations of tech companies now drive national economies and that many of the key conditions to create one here already exist.

The report, which was initiated by an informal group of business leaders with a keen interest in the issue, recommended the effort focus on the healthcare and finance industries, as well AI and quantum computing, key disruptive technologies that Canada is already strong in.

But as the conversation heated up at the Rotman event, it was AI that panelists returned to most often as the field with the greatest promise in terms of jobs and economic growth.

“AI’s time has come,” said Janet Bannister, a partner in Real Ventures, a seed capital firm. “It is now going to start to transform industries and create huge new companies.”

“It is going to impact medicine, transportation, telecommunications,” said Dan Debow, a serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Tech North who repeatedly stressed that several giant companies are required to anchor and spur the growth of true tech superclusters. “Every part of our life will be impacted by this fundamental technology.”

Waterloo will drive applied AI innovation

Wong, a Canada Research Chair in Medical Imaging Systems, said Waterloo can make an important contribution by developing operational AI, or practical uses for the fruits of fundamental research.

“We take these big AI ideas and turn them into something that’s tangible and can be applied,” he said, stressing the field need not be dominated commercially by giant companies with huge amounts of money to spend. “I think that’s a great way of using AI to really push the Canadian economy.”

Wong also said Waterloo’s co-op program, the largest of its kind in the world, should be used as a model by other universities to produce industry-ready graduates and student entrepreneurs who find ideas for their own businesses while on work terms.

“It’s one of the best ways to learn what industrial needs are and then actually deliver on them,” he said.