There was an interesting column published in the Montreal Gazette on Tuesday, calling for the province of Quebec to invest billions of dollars
in an attempt to ensure Montreal and the surrounding cities become the AI hub they have the potential to be. Essentially, the argument goes, artificial intelligence has the potential to be a huge economic boon, and the time to strike is now before Silicon Valley vacuums up all the talent and the United States get a serious government in place again.
The University of Toronto and University of Montreal, in particular, produce large numbers of AI experts, often under the tutelage of deep learning masters like Geoff Hinton and Yoshua Bengio. Google, Microsoft, Uber and others have offices and labs in the region
. The newly announced Vector Institute
should help foment more innovation, and accelerators like Creative Destruction Lab
are providing high-quality entrepreneurial guidance, as well as investment capital.
I think it’s great that Canada recognizes this opportunity and is trying to capitalize on it, but officials would be wise to set realistic expectations and invest accordingly. Lots of cities around the U.S.—including Las Vegas, where I live—have tried to become “the next Silicon Valley,” but few have actually been very successful at it. Some have a healthy startup scene, satellite offices of major web companies and have even had some local success stories. But epicenters of technology on par with Silicon Valley? No.
Eastern Canada is well positioned in the sense that it has the university infrastructure in place to attract and churn out a steady stream of talent. Where it’s arguably lacking (and people who study this closer than me might have a much different opinion) is in venture capital infrastructure and major anchor businesses (e.g., Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Cisco, VMware, etc.). Those types of networks are immensely valuable in terms of money, meetings and experience.
Silicon Valley and Seattle have all three, which is why there’s a seemingly endless of stream of AI, cloud and other-cutting edge tech activity happening around them. It’s certainly possible that Toronto and Montreal could be to the AI era what Silicon Valley and, increasingly, Seattle have been to silicon/web/cloud eras, but it’s going to take a concerted effort to make that happen. Money is a big part of it, for sure, but it needs to be money well spent.
Building the foundation to keep the region’s AI scene humming once government subsidies dry up a decade from now is probably more important than spawning a few dozen startups tomorrow. Otherwise, Canada risks spending a lot of money to become a feeder to Silicon Valley. That’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s not a national game-changer, either.