Why should we Canadians care about the global race to dominate AI (Artificial Intelligence)? Almost every major developed country is actively pursuing their AI strategy. Is Canada’s AI strategy good enough? Should we add AI to our standard high school curriculum? These are critical questions that will determine Canada’s future.

We all know that AI is going to revolutionize all industries, countries and even the way we work, AI will also contribute trillions of dollars in value to the economy. China has seen this and has deployed a well-coordinated public and private backed AI strategy to dominate this space by 2030. China knows that having a large AI talent pool is key to dominating AI by 2030 and have shown us the way to securing enough AI talent to power their future ambitions. Canada’s AI strategy is a good start but far from enough. We should make AI part of the standard high school curriculum and we should do even more than that to compete in the global age of AI. AI has implications for ethics, privacy, diversity, technology, business, work and more – it is only practical that we teach the fundamentals of AI to our students to prepare them for a future where AI is in everything.

AI will be revolutionary and will change industries and economies like nothing before. As shown in this Mckinsey Global Institute Report, AI is expected to generate trillions and trillions of value in the future, revolutionizing industries wherever it goes. China has realized the potential for AI and has also mobilized both their public and private resources to make their vision into reality. China’s 2030 plan is already published and it was released in July 2017 with key milestones in 2020, 2025 and 2030. In October 2017, China’s NRDC (National Development and Reform Commission) has announced AI priorities that included advances in deep learning AI chips and highly reliable intelligent unmanned systems and service robots (1). By November 2017, China has created the New Generation AI Strategic Advisory Commission to help ensure the seamless progress of their AI ambitions (2). Last December 2017, China’s MIIT (Ministry of Industry and Information Technology) has also released their plans to address the first phase of their plan by 2020.

Needless to say, China is rapidly making its plans into a reality and we need to take notice. More recently, China has announced that it will start to add AI as part of the curriculum for its high school students starting with a pilot program in 40 schools (3). The new AI textbook can even be bought and reviewed should we want to get a copy of it. “The textbook focuses not only on basics of AI but also on the practical use of AI in daily life,” said Chen Yukun, a professor at East China Normal University, who is also a contributor to the book. The selected 40 pilot schools are basically well-known middle schools in various provinces and cities across China (4). This is an unprecedented move to secure the future of their ambitions by securing the much needed AI talent.

The first book on AI Fundamentals for China’s AI pilot program in high school (5)

When corporations and businesses look for locations for their headquarters, both labour and talent are key. As early as 2016, governments had estimated that demand for AI professionals may surge to more than 5 million in the upcoming years. China is playing the long game by ensuring that they have a strong funnel for their future AI talent. This large pool of AI talent will, in turn, attract business, industries and more research into their country, thereby spurring further development of their AI capabilities. As Peter Cappelli, Director of Wharton School’s Center for Human Resources and a Wharton management professor said, “For most businesses, the issue of location choice now is driven by labour: Will we be able to attract the white collar skills we need?” (6). All of this work from China is paying off and most recent reports have shown that China has for the first time surpassed the USA in equity funding to AI startups spurning worries of being overtaken by China in AI (7). Deep Learning was developed in Canada, it is only fitting that Canadians continue to be leaders in this space (8) and to do that we need to be more proactive.

The first 40 Pilot Schools in China to receive the AI curriculum (9)

Canada is aware of the implications of the future of AI and has created a supercluster to invest in this space (10) but this is not enough. While the investment is a decent start for Canada’s size, it pales in comparison to investments being made by countries with bigger populations and deeper pockets than us. We need to continue to promote and cultivate our AI talent if we want to be a key player in the next generation AI industry. I think that in addition to what Canada is doing right now, we should also seriously consider doing the following:

1.)    Create a specific Minister of AI and a government-backed AI consortium/council

The Minister of AI will lead the charge for AI across Canada and also oversee the government-backed country wide AI consortium/council made up of private and public sector leaders to advise the government on recommended policies and updates to ensure we are adapting our policies to be relevant in the age of AI. Similar to how China has created their own council and UAE has appointed their first Minister of AI, Canada should at minimum follow suit.

2.)    Add AI to the Canadian high school curriculum

In the same way, how math and science are critical to our everyday life, AI will be just as relevant. Canada should add AI to the high school curriculum to broaden the potential pool of AI talent for Canadians to draw upon to further secure our place in AI’s future. This will also provide Canadians with a solid understanding of the ethical, privacy, diversity, technological, and business implications of a life with AI in the future.

3.)    Increase AI partnerships with China

China will become a dominant player in AI, there is no doubt about it. Canada needs to accept this fact and start to lay the foundations of a solid partnership with China to ensure that we have a seat at the AI leadership table. Canada does a lot of trade and partnership with the USA but China is a distant third. We need to diversify our partnerships and exports more to truly be a relevant player in the world.

A healthier AI industry means more jobs and better technologies to enable our industries to compete on the global scale. This, in turn, will provide even more jobs and a healthier economy for Canada and a better life for us Canadians (11).

The AI revolution may have started in Canada but the global race to dominate AI is on. Everyone has realized that whoever dominates AI will own a large chunk of the multi-trillion dollar opportunity AI brings, not to mention the other qualitative competitive advantages AI brings. We need to further elevate our game and secure our future AI talent pool by adding AI as a standard curriculum to our schools. Now is not the time to gamble with our future.  The gauntlet has been thrown and China has shown its cards. Are we Canadians ready to live up to the challenge?


Charles Lim

Vice President, IMAX Corporation & CATA International Innovation Council Member & CATA AI Directory Champion

July 2018