Impact AI hopes to put Ottawa on the machine learning map

Eli Fathi
Eli Fathi

When considering the impact of AI, Eli Fathi turns to an unexpected source. He quotes Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said in September of last year that “whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”

World domination aside, there’s a clear market in machine learning – advanced algorithms trained to perform complicated tasks, such as human-like conversation or fraud detection. PwC noted in a recent report that the AI market is expected to reach US$70 billion by 2020.

That’s driven investors towards the sector in droves. Hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital flow through Montreal and Toronto as investors swarm to capture a slice of the burgeoning market.

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Somewhere in the middle of that corridor lies Ottawa, and a new conference is hoping to shine a spotlight on the capital’s AI potential.

“I feel that Ottawa is left out,” says Fathi, CEO of MindBridge AI, the firm putting on the inaugural Impact AI conference at Algonquin College later this month.

“It’s important for us to put Ottawa on the map.”

MindBridge, which uses machine learning algorithms to spot potential cases of internal fraud, has done a fair bit to raise Ottawa’s profile already. The firm announced earlier this month that it had landed $8.4 million in series-A funding, bringing its total financing up to roughly $15 million.

It’s not alone in Ottawa, either. AI firm Raven Telemetry also announced in the first week of May that it had raised a $6.1-million seed round.

These numbers still pale in comparison to record-breaking raises from firms such as Montreal’s Element AI, which took in $102 million last year. But Fathi insists that Ottawa has a few unfair advantages that make it perfectly suited to become a machine learning hub.

For one, Ottawa is a very smart city. Not necessarily in terms of Internet of Things connectivity (yet), but that 61 per cent of the city’s workers have a post-secondary degree, according to Statistics Canada figures. That, combined with two universities, two colleges and research labs such as the National Research Council of Canada, makes the capital a force to be reckoned with in intelligence – artificial or otherwise.

“It is an incubator, as a city, for talent and for companies,” Fathi says.

Federal priorities

The other advantage comes in the form of the federal government, a wellspring of opportunity for Ottawa startups, depending on where the government’s priorities lie.

According to Michael Karlin, senior adviser at the Treasury Board of Canada, the feds’ eyes are firmly fixed on AI.

“We’re trying to think through what the rules should be for AI in government,” Karlin says. “That’s a big challenge that’s coming up ahead, but I think it’s a really important one.”

Karlin’s background in privacy and ethics serves the current landscape of AI in the public sector well. One of the chief concerns around machine learning today is in how applications are trained, and how historical flaws in the way we collect data could bias AI. PwC notes that opening AI’s “black box,” increasing the algorithms’ transparency, will be a priority for the sector’s development.

Karlin says there’s a culture change underway across federal departments to convince the average public servant that AI is the way of the future.

“You need to convince people that new, data analytics-driven decision-making is potentially more effective if done right.”

Machine learning applications are already underway: Health Canada has a tool to scan social media for complaints about children’s toys that are breaking or overheating. Getting this information without parents needing to file an official complaint saves processing time and gets results from regulated manufacturers sooner.

“In Ottawa, our ability to improve government services is an enormous opportunity.”

Karlin would like to see AI brought to departments such as the Canada Revenue Agency. Other countries have introduced chatbots that can respond to simple queries about filing taxes, a move that could give Canadians answers to questions after hours and free up employees’ time to focus on complex problems.

After Impact AI, where Karlin will be part of a panel on AI in government, he says he’s hoping to see more, smaller events where public servants can work with Ottawa companies to discuss partnerships and vendor opportunities.

He and Fathi believe these kinds of events will breed a culture of knowledge-sharing that can see all stakeholders benefit from integrating AI into the public sector.

“In Ottawa, our ability to improve government services is an enormous opportunity,” Fathi says.

Rising on AI tides

Fathi says his ambitions for hosting Ottawa’s first artificial intelligence conference aren’t centred on MindBridge. He says that hosting a conference to advance Ottawa and the rest of the country’s place in AI will, as the saying goes, cause all boats to rise.

“In this case, MindBridge is looking at it from the perspective of, ‘Let’s be good citizens,’” he says.

The conference itself will be “competition agnostic,” with major players such as IBM, Microsoft and Amazon all coming together to discuss what they’re seeing in the sector.

Most other AI conferences are heavily academic or focused around a single vertical, Fathi says, but the goal with Impact AI is to answer the questions about how the black box of artificial intelligence will affect everyone: businesses, scholars, citizens and government.

“We are pushing all of this together and looking at the impact,” he says. “We want to open the box.”

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