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It’s my opinion that Canada, not the U.S., could become a leading artificial intelligence (AI) hub. Singapore would do well to follow its example if it wants to become an AI hub for Asia, a case I have been putting forward. Indeed, Singapore has a chance to do just that, but the window of opportunity won’t stay permanently open.

Facebook announced this September that it is tapping into Canada’s impressive supply of artificial-intelligence talent and expertise by creating a major AI research center in Montreal. Several big recent advances in AI can be traced back to Canadian research labs, and Facebook is hoping that the new lab may help it take advantage of whatever comes next.

Meanwhile, Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (SAIT) opened an AI Lab at the University of Montreal in Canada in August. It will focus on developing core algorithms for use in robotics, autonomous driving, translations, and voice and visual recognition.

In July, Google’s DeepMind artificial intelligence team announced that its first international research lab is coming to the Canadian prairie city of Edmonton, Alberta. But Facebook, Samsung, and Google are just three examples of the calibre of tech companies that have looked to Canada as a seat of the future AI industry.

“Lots of opportunity”

I shared these pieces of news with my LinkedIn network, and it generated quite a lot of buzz.

“Yes, there’s lot’s of opportunity here in Canada,” said David Scharbach, Organizer of Toronto Machine Learning Summit. “The government announced a Global Skills Visa that allows companies to bring in foreign skilled workers to live in Canada – it takes less than two weeks to process … I have a large group of PhD’s (approx. 150) for work on part-time AI projects.”

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Behind the scenes, there has been a long wait for the recent AI boom. As we know, the field went through many ups and downs over the years since the inception of the idea in Alan Turing’s famous 1950 paper.

In Canada, there has been a continuous effort to research AI by academics and scholars over, even throughout the decades where little progress seems to have been made. Canada’s education is excellent due to strong competition with the U.S. and boasts strong academic institutions such as McGill University, the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, and Université de Montréal (famous for its work in AI).

However, from the perspective of many in Asia, Canada has not historically been seen as the best place to set up a technology-related business. That’s because its neighbor is the U.S. – a superpower competitor with a population of 323 million (10 times bigger than Canada’s) and the strongest R&D and academic capabilities in the world.

Though Canada is doing well, relatively speaking it has struggled to be recognized as a leading player, especially with its small domestic market. In AI, however, Canada has taken a very decisive bet on the future of the field as a game changer and therefore invested early and heavily.

Race just getting started

The mid-long term plan for Canada’s future as an AI hub should be to nurture an openness to foreign talent through its visa program. As of now, it takes two weeks to get a visa as a software engineer. It can also leverage location advantages by building clusters near the U.S.’s main cities, particularly those on the East coast such as New York and Boston. (Montreal and Toronto are home to Canada’s primary AI hubs.)

It’s my hope that Singapore can play the same role in Asia as the region’s leading AI hub. The good news is that you don’t need to be a big country to achieve it. Market access is more important than market size itself, and having a talent pool with R&D capabilities is much more important than a large talent pool per se.

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