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Borders and the Flow of Intelligence

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Just after the last US presidential election, I posted a blog on the possible impact of US immigration policies on the tech industry in Toronto. Six months on, we’re finding that Toronto and Canada may be getting some advantage. I’d like your thoughts.

Is this down to just one man?

The Vector Institute – an “independent, non-profit research institution dedicated to the transformative field of artificial intelligence” – recently opened in downtown Toronto.

According to a recent CNBC report, the institute

“has only been around for a few weeks, and it is already attracting top machine learning talent from Silicon Valley.

“One reason for this: President Donald Trump.”

That said, there are important reasons beyond Trump. CNBC quotes Vector co-founder, Jordan Jacobs: “Toronto is a dynamic city, and it is culturally diverse with over 50 percent of the people here born outside of Canada. Regardless of where you come from, this is a community.”

That we are.

Our infrastructure is showing …

And we also have an insurance community which is reaching out to innovate new products, processes, and customer experiences. Which opens doors to new technologies and services which are emerging from labs, incubators, accelerators, and the like.

I like to walk. And within walking distance, I can reach:

The MaRS Discovery District which has “a mission that is equal parts public and private — an entrepreneurial venture designed to bridge the gap between what people need and what governments can provide.” I blogged on a hackathon Manulife held at MARS in late 2015.

Ryerson DMZ: Since 2010, this is “the leading business incubator for tech startups in Canada. We help startups build great businesses by connecting them with customers, capital, experts and a community of entrepreneurs and influencers.” The DMZ has supported insurance startups and is working with insurers and suppliers to increase insurance business knowledge.

Cookhouse Lab: The founders are insurance alumni. Its mission is “to accelerate insurance innovation through open collaboration.” (I am sitting in as a guest in a project and look forward to sharing results.)

In addition, still within walking distance are two insurer Insurtech centres; Aviva’s Digital Garage and the Sonnet development centre.

(And, though not quite within walking distance, the Communitech Hub in Kitchener has a thriving insurance community with a history going back to shortly after the earth cooled – in the 1990s.)

Infrastructure enables, but cognition rules

Obviously, Toronto is not a threat to Silicon Valley, in the same way that Canada is not a threat to the US in terms of military supremacy. However, we do rank in the top levels for expertise in specific areas. AI is one.

And the AI teams in Toronto are getting strong support from Google. In its  Blog, Geoffrey Hinton, Chief Scientific Advisor for the Vector Institute lauds the relationship between the Toronto AI team and its Montreal counterpart, as well as federal, provincial, and corporate partners.

Hinton notes that the research “will find application in fields as diverse as healthcare, financial services and advanced manufacturing.”

This means that insurance AI could be on the same walking path that I use.

As for outcomes, Hinton says:

“Pairing Canada’s research pedigree with an active startup community, incubators, government investment and large anchor companies that attract and retain talent, is key to solidifying this country’s reputation as a global AI supercluster.”

The challenge to all of this is to attract and retain talent. And this is where the US faces a real challenge. Looking at the current US environment, CNBC says that “recent battles over immigration have made some people feel unwelcome, and others more hesitant to move to the U.S. to do research in artificial intelligence.”

Or any other application for that matter.

This isn’t a consensus, for sure

After I published my post election blog, a wise colleague of mine posted a response. He summarized a very respectable analysis and concluded:

“So net-net, I do not see a Trump presidency being positive for Canada – but then again who really knows?”

I’m guessing that we’re closer to a conclusion, but the jury is still out, so I would really appreciate your thoughts.

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