Doing Good and Closing Canada's AI Gap

artificial intelligence at waterloo

Canada has a problem.

We play an outsized role in the world as drivers of artificial intelligence knowledge and advancement, but we aren’t seeing it pay off on the global stage–not in the headlines, and not yet in the marketplace. Even as Canada cements its role as the big thinkers behind one of the world’s most dynamic and disruptive technologies, companies are having a difficult time capitalizing on that advantage.

A recent study by the research company Gartner found that Canada was ninth out of the 10 countries it surveyed in adoption and deployment of AI business applications. The study, which surveyed over 3,000 companies around the world, said a skills shortage was their biggest barrier.

It’s clear, then, that we need to do more to prepare Canadians for the technology and applications of the future – the advancements that will shape every job in every industry – to ensure not only that our country reaps the rewards of AI, but that we set a standard for the rest of the world.

How does Canada narrow the gap?

So how does Canada narrow that gap? How do we convert our massive stores of brain power into a bright future of economic prosperity – and, by extension, become a more powerful force for good at a time the world needs it most?

We need not look far for answers. At the University of Waterloo, we believe society depends on institutions of higher education to contribute first and foremost to discovery, but also to transfer that knowledge and talent directly to the economy – to provide an integrated platform of teaching and research that readies citizens with new ideas and connects our brightest minds with the needs of industry and society.

Consider Jonathan Kofman, a University of Waterloo researcher who is beginning a crucial phase in a bold plan to help reduce the suffering of those afflicted by Parkinson’s disease around the world.

Kofman, a professor in the university’s department of Systems Design Engineering, is developing a wearable, artificial-intelligence based system that will predict and prevent freeze episodes in real time. It’s an important technology that could go a long way helping to prevent serious falls, and easing the minds of those living in constant fear their bodies won’t carry about their brains’ commands.

For the researchers and his team, the AI-powered project represents an exciting way forward for the more than 10 million people who suffer from the disease – a number that is expected to grow as the global population ages. For the University of Waterloo, the research – one of eight exciting new projects being funded this spring through a new partnership with Microsoft – is a continuation of our Artificial Intelligence Institute’s mission to discover, learn and change the world.

Shaping the future during disruptive times

For us all, they represent so much more: More than a new wave of innovation, but a new model for how universities can help shape the future against a backdrop of political and social discord. They demonstrate how institutions of higher learning can use our platforms to bring together scientists, industry partners and public policy experts that draw from varied fields of study, from all corners of the planet, and to use these long-held relationships to transcend the limits of relatively brief political quarrels.

Our view of 21st-century education requires collaboration from all these spheres to foster purpose-driven innovation. In the area of artificial intelligence, that means developing systems that can detect cancer and heart disease, understanding language and emotion, and navigating roadways and factory floors better than ever before. Through applications both known and unimagined, we are determined to play a leadership role in pushing the frontiers of education and research for both the betterment of our society and the nation’s prosperity.

We do that important work best when we get support from industry, driven by economic needs and backed by investors who understand that AI is poised to transform our world. With the right partnerships, we can ensure this upgrade is in the best interests of Canada and beyond. By leading in AI, we can lead the world – exporting not just our business, but the best of our country’s brand of democracy and society.

Those eight projects at the University of Waterloo, for example, will tackle the most urgent social issues of our time –  from climate change to health care to accessibility.  And working with one of modern history’s most influential companies, our university will get the chance to bring a part of what makes us special to everyone –  to show what the University of Waterloo’s artificial intelligence research is capable of accomplishing as we contribute to a more prosperous Canada and global community.

It is an important story. It is a story of how, through a mix of research and working together with partners across sectors, we can ease the suffering caused by diseases like Parkinson’s; of how we can wield the immense power of artificial intelligence in a manner beneficial to everyone; and of how we can shape the future at such an auspicious moment in our lifetimes.

It is a story about the kind of technology that can save the world. Let’s make sure Canada is dictating its opening chapters.

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