The ever-accelerating power and promise of artificial intelligence took centre stage Thursday at the second incarnation of Go North, the world-renowned technology summit hosted by Google.
Hundreds gathered at the sprawling Evergreen Brick Works complex in the city’s Don Valley to hear and discuss the latest trends in machine learning and neural nets. In contrast to last year’s Go North event, which was broader in concept and hit on topics like quantum computing, fostering a culture of innovation and the problem of finding and keeping talent, this year the focus was almost exclusively on AI, an acknowledgment of the rapidly accelerating importance of that particular sphere of technology and the increasingly vital role Canadians and Canadian-based research is playing in the AI vertical.
“Canada is a global leader in artificial intelligence,” Steve Woods, Google’s Senior Engineering Director, told the audience of 600 during his introductory remarks for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who delivered the morning keynote. “Technology is going to change our world the way the combustion engine changed it [once] before.”
Trudeau was among the featured morning speakers, taking part in a question-and-answer session on the main stage with Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Alphabet, the parent of Google. As he has done during visits to Waterloo Region, the most recent of which was last spring, Trudeau underscored his government’s commitment to making Canada a leader in technology, and particularly in AI.
“We all recognize the pace of change is accelerating,” said Trudeau. “Change has never been this fast, and yet it will never be this slow again.”
Some of the biggest names in the world from the AI sphere were in attendance, and many of those names have Canadian connections and, in some cases, Canadian citizenship.
Among them: Shivon Zilis, a Director at OpenAI and a board member at Toronto’s AI-focussed Vector Institute; Hugo Larochelle, Research Scientist and Lead at Google Brain Montreal; and Geoffrey Hinton, one of key pioneers in field of machine learning and a mentor for many of the top names in AI research today. Hinton is Vice-President at Google and Chief Scientific Advisor at Vector and Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto. It was Hinton’s early research – in Canada – that generated many of the breakthroughs powering today’s AI research.
Hinton spent much of his afternoon Q&A with New York Times AI reporter Cade Metz talking about how much isn’t yet known about neural nets, rather than what is, describing the state of the art as “primitive,” and that there is much, yet, to learn.
“You probably heard this morning how incredibly fast the progress of neural nets is,” said Hinton. “I started on this 38 years ago and it’s just coming to fruition now.”
Still, the Go North event served to underscore just how much has unfolded in the AI sphere in the previous 12 months and how AI has emerged as potentially the key area of technological development, be it powering self-driving cars or unpinning developments in the Internet of Things. In recent months Toronto’s AI-focussed Vector Institute was established, the major technology players have all created significant AI footprints in Canada, particularly in Montreal, and federal money has poured into the area, bolstering research in Edmonton, Montreal, and the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor. All given, it’s no surprise AI emerged as the natural focus this edition of Go North.
“Go North was originally [established] as a way to highlight what is unfolding in Canadian tech, and if ever there was a year of AI, it was this year,” Woods said. “This is going to be the beginning of a profound shift in the way people use software and the kind of impact it has. If you look at the breakthroughs we’ve had in Canada by Canadian researchers, it was sort of a natural fit [as a basis for Go North].
“Also, [at Google] we’re quite passionate about [AI] as a company – we are an AI- first company.”
After his Q&A, Trudeau and Navdeep Bains, Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, joined Schmidt, Hinton, Zilis, Woods and several others at a roundtable discussion about the future of AI.
“It was a really amazing array of people talking about their perspectives on artificial intelligence,” said Woods. “Everything from the ethics of it to the impact on Canadian lives, Canadian GDP potential.
“We talked about the opportunities, certainly, but also the challenges in finding the data, and dealing with issues like ownership and protection of privacy. These are really important issues. Government is certainly well aware of them. Industry and startups are well aware of them. I think the amazing thing is there’s a dialogue at a very high level and a very deep level, as well, going on about how to benefit and protect all Canadians.
“It’s pretty amazing to see a dialogue like that involving our Prime Minister and the world’s top AI researchers.”
Larochelle, who studied under Hinton at the University of Toronto and like Hinton is considered one of the giants in the sphere, echoed Woods’ view that the time for AI in Canada is now.
“I think [this conference] definitely reflects the excitement around AI in Canada, which is great. I feel privileged that I get to be a part of it.
“Before at Google I was also a professor. Not so long ago today, someone came up to me [and asked] about my video lectures. I see that more and more. It makes me very happy. It’s fun to see that I’m helping the next generation learn about that stuff and see how passionate they are about it.”