Tag Archives: British Columbia

Alberta adds a newish quantum nanotechnology research hub to the Canada’s quantum computing research scene

One of the winners in Canada’s 2017 federal budget announcement of the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy was Edmonton, Alberta. It’s a fact which sometimes goes unnoticed while Canadians marvel at the wonderfulness found in Toronto and Montréal where it seems new initiatives and monies are being announced on a weekly basis (I exaggerate) for their AI (artificial intelligence) efforts.

Alberta’s quantum nanotechnology hub (graduate programme)

Intriguingly, it seems that Edmonton has higher aims than (an almost unnoticed) leadership in AI. Physicists at the University of Alberta have announced hopes to be just as successful as their AI brethren in a Nov. 27, 2017 article by Juris Graney for the Edmonton Journal,

Physicists at the University of Alberta [U of A] are hoping to emulate the success of their artificial intelligence studying counterparts in establishing the city and the province as the nucleus of quantum nanotechnology research in Canada and North America.

Google’s artificial intelligence research division DeepMind announced in July [2017] it had chosen Edmonton as its first international AI research lab, based on a long-running partnership with the U of A’s 10-person AI lab.

Retaining the brightest minds in the AI and machine-learning fields while enticing a global tech leader to Alberta was heralded as a coup for the province and the university.

It is something U of A physics professor John Davis believes the university’s new graduate program, Quanta, can help achieve in the world of quantum nanotechnology.

The field of quantum mechanics had long been a realm of theoretical science based on the theory that atomic and subatomic material like photons or electrons behave both as particles and waves.

“When you get right down to it, everything has both behaviours (particle and wave) and we can pick and choose certain scenarios which one of those properties we want to use,” he said.

But, Davis said, physicists and scientists are “now at the point where we understand quantum physics and are developing quantum technology to take to the marketplace.”

“Quantum computing used to be realm of science fiction, but now we’ve figured it out, it’s now a matter of engineering,” he said.

Quantum computing labs are being bought by large tech companies such as Google, IBM and Microsoft because they realize they are only a few years away from having this power, he said.

Those making the groundbreaking developments may want to commercialize their finds and take the technology to market and that is where Quanta comes in.

East vs. West—Again?

Ivan Semeniuk in his article, Quantum Supremacy, ignores any quantum research effort not located in either Waterloo, Ontario or metro Vancouver, British Columbia to describe a struggle between the East and the West (a standard Canadian trope). From Semeniuk’s Oct. 17, 2017 quantum article [link follows the excerpts] for the Globe and Mail’s October 2017 issue of the Report on Business (ROB),

 Lazaridis [Mike], of course, has experienced lost advantage first-hand. As co-founder and former co-CEO of Research in Motion (RIM, now called Blackberry), he made the smartphone an indispensable feature of the modern world, only to watch rivals such as Apple and Samsung wrest away Blackberry’s dominance. Now, at 56, he is engaged in a high-stakes race that will determine who will lead the next technology revolution. In the rolling heartland of southwestern Ontario, he is laying the foundation for what he envisions as a new Silicon Valley—a commercial hub based on the promise of quantum technology.

Semeniuk skips over the story of how Blackberry lost its advantage. I came onto that story late in the game when Blackberry was already in serious trouble due to a failure to recognize that the field they helped to create was moving in a new direction. If memory serves, they were trying to keep their technology wholly proprietary which meant that developers couldn’t easily create apps to extend the phone’s features. Blackberry also fought a legal battle in the US with a patent troll draining company resources and energy in proved to be a futile effort.

Since then Lazaridis has invested heavily in quantum research. He gave the University of Waterloo a serious chunk of money as they named their Quantum Nano Centre (QNC) after him and his wife, Ophelia (you can read all about it in my Sept. 25, 2012 posting about the then new centre). The best details for Lazaridis’ investments in Canada’s quantum technology are to be found on the Quantum Valley Investments, About QVI, History webpage,

History-bannerHistory has repeatedly demonstrated the power of research in physics to transform society.  As a student of history and a believer in the power of physics, Mike Lazaridis set out in 2000 to make real his bold vision to establish the Region of Waterloo as a world leading centre for physics research.  That is, a place where the best researchers in the world would come to do cutting-edge research and to collaborate with each other and in so doing, achieve transformative discoveries that would lead to the commercialization of breakthrough  technologies.

Establishing a World Class Centre in Quantum Research:

The first step in this regard was the establishment of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.  Perimeter was established in 2000 as an independent theoretical physics research institute.  Mike started Perimeter with an initial pledge of $100 million (which at the time was approximately one third of his net worth).  Since that time, Mike and his family have donated a total of more than $170 million to the Perimeter Institute.  In addition to this unprecedented monetary support, Mike also devotes his time and influence to help lead and support the organization in everything from the raising of funds with government and private donors to helping to attract the top researchers from around the globe to it.  Mike’s efforts helped Perimeter achieve and grow its position as one of a handful of leading centres globally for theoretical research in fundamental physics.

Stephen HawkingPerimeter is located in a Governor-General award winning designed building in Waterloo.  Success in recruiting and resulting space requirements led to an expansion of the Perimeter facility.  A uniquely designed addition, which has been described as space-ship-like, was opened in 2011 as the Stephen Hawking Centre in recognition of one of the most famous physicists alive today who holds the position of Distinguished Visiting Research Chair at Perimeter and is a strong friend and supporter of the organization.

Recognizing the need for collaboration between theorists and experimentalists, in 2002, Mike applied his passion and his financial resources toward the establishment of The Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo.  IQC was established as an experimental research institute focusing on quantum information.  Mike established IQC with an initial donation of $33.3 million.  Since that time, Mike and his family have donated a total of more than $120 million to the University of Waterloo for IQC and other related science initiatives.  As in the case of the Perimeter Institute, Mike devotes considerable time and influence to help lead and support IQC in fundraising and recruiting efforts.  Mike’s efforts have helped IQC become one of the top experimental physics research institutes in the world.

Quantum ComputingMike and Doug Fregin have been close friends since grade 5.  They are also co-founders of BlackBerry (formerly Research In Motion Limited).  Doug shares Mike’s passion for physics and supported Mike’s efforts at the Perimeter Institute with an initial gift of $10 million.  Since that time Doug has donated a total of $30 million to Perimeter Institute.  Separately, Doug helped establish the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo with total gifts for $29 million.  As suggested by its name, WIN is devoted to research in the area of nanotechnology.  It has established as an area of primary focus the intersection of nanotechnology and quantum physics.

With a donation of $50 million from Mike which was matched by both the Government of Canada and the province of Ontario as well as a donation of $10 million from Doug, the University of Waterloo built the Mike & Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum-Nano Centre, a state of the art laboratory located on the main campus of the University of Waterloo that rivals the best facilities in the world.  QNC was opened in September 2012 and houses researchers from both IQC and WIN.

Leading the Establishment of Commercialization Culture for Quantum Technologies in Canada:

In the Research LabFor many years, theorists have been able to demonstrate the transformative powers of quantum mechanics on paper.  That said, converting these theories to experimentally demonstrable discoveries has, putting it mildly, been a challenge.  Many naysayers have suggested that achieving these discoveries was not possible and even the believers suggested that it could likely take decades to achieve these discoveries.  Recently, a buzz has been developing globally as experimentalists have been able to achieve demonstrable success with respect to Quantum Information based discoveries.  Local experimentalists are very much playing a leading role in this regard.  It is believed by many that breakthrough discoveries that will lead to commercialization opportunities may be achieved in the next few years and certainly within the next decade.

Recognizing the unique challenges for the commercialization of quantum technologies (including risk associated with uncertainty of success, complexity of the underlying science and high capital / equipment costs) Mike and Doug have chosen to once again lead by example.  The Quantum Valley Investment Fund will provide commercialization funding, expertise and support for researchers that develop breakthroughs in Quantum Information Science that can reasonably lead to new commercializable technologies and applications.  Their goal in establishing this Fund is to lead in the development of a commercialization infrastructure and culture for Quantum discoveries in Canada and thereby enable such discoveries to remain here.

Semeniuk goes on to set the stage for Waterloo/Lazaridis vs. Vancouver (from Semeniuk’s 2017 ROB article),

… as happened with Blackberry, the world is once again catching up. While Canada’s funding of quantum technology ranks among the top five in the world, the European Union, China, and the US are all accelerating their investments in the field. Tech giants such as Google [also known as Alphabet], Microsoft and IBM are ramping up programs to develop companies and other technologies based on quantum principles. Meanwhile, even as Lazaridis works to establish Waterloo as the country’s quantum hub, a Vancouver-area company has emerged to challenge that claim. The two camps—one methodically focused on the long game, the other keen to stake an early commercial lead—have sparked an East-West rivalry that many observers of the Canadian quantum scene are at a loss to explain.

Is it possible that some of the rivalry might be due to an influential individual who has invested heavily in a ‘quantum valley’ and has a history of trying to ‘own’ a technology?

Getting back to D-Wave Systems, the Vancouver company, I have written about them a number of times (particularly in 2015; for the full list: input D-Wave into the blog search engine). This June 26, 2015 posting includes a reference to an article in The Economist magazine about D-Wave’s commercial opportunities while the bulk of the posting is focused on a technical breakthrough.

Semeniuk offers an overview of the D-Wave Systems story,

D-Wave was born in 1999, the same year Lazaridis began to fund quantum science in Waterloo. From the start, D-Wave had a more immediate goal: to develop a new computer technology to bring to market. “We didn’t have money or facilities,” says Geordie Rose, a physics PhD who co0founded the company and served in various executive roles. …

The group soon concluded that the kind of machine most scientists were pursing based on so-called gate-model architecture was decades away from being realized—if ever. …

Instead, D-Wave pursued another idea, based on a principle dubbed “quantum annealing.” This approach seemed more likely to produce a working system, even if the application that would run on it were more limited. “The only thing we cared about was building the machine,” says Rose. “Nobody else was trying to solve the same problem.”

D-Wave debuted its first prototype at an event in California in February 2007 running it through a few basic problems such as solving a Sudoku puzzle and finding the optimal seating plan for a wedding reception. … “They just assumed we were hucksters,” says Hilton [Jeremy Hilton, D.Wave senior vice-president of systems]. Federico Spedalieri, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California’s [USC} Information Sciences Institute who has worked with D-Wave’s system, says the limited information the company provided about the machine’s operation provoked outright hostility. “I think that played against them a lot in the following years,” he says.

It seems Lazaridis is not the only one who likes to hold company information tightly.

Back to Semeniuk and D-Wave,

Today [October 2017], the Los Alamos National Laboratory owns a D-Wave machine, which costs about $15million. Others pay to access D-Wave systems remotely. This year , for example, Volkswagen fed data from thousands of Beijing taxis into a machine located in Burnaby [one of the municipalities that make up metro Vancouver] to study ways to optimize traffic flow.

But the application for which D-Wave has the hights hope is artificial intelligence. Any AI program hings on the on the “training” through which a computer acquires automated competence, and the 2000Q [a D-Wave computer] appears well suited to this task. …

Yet, for all the buzz D-Wave has generated, with several research teams outside Canada investigating its quantum annealing approach, the company has elicited little interest from the Waterloo hub. As a result, what might seem like a natural development—the Institute for Quantum Computing acquiring access to a D-Wave machine to explore and potentially improve its value—has not occurred. …

I am particularly interested in this comment as it concerns public funding (from Semeniuk’s article),

Vern Brownell, a former Goldman Sachs executive who became CEO of D-Wave in 2009, calls the lack of collaboration with Waterloo’s research community “ridiculous,” adding that his company’s efforts to establish closer ties have proven futile, “I’ll be blunt: I don’t think our relationship is good enough,” he says. Brownell also point out that, while  hundreds of millions in public funds have flowed into Waterloo’s ecosystem, little funding is available for  Canadian scientists wishing to make the most of D-Wave’s hardware—despite the fact that it remains unclear which core quantum technology will prove the most profitable.

There’s a lot more to Semeniuk’s article but this is the last excerpt,

The world isn’t waiting for Canada’s quantum rivals to forge a united front. Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Intel are racing to develop a gate-model quantum computer—the sector’s ultimate goal. (Google’s researchers have said they will unveil a significant development early next year.) With the U.K., Australia and Japan pouring money into quantum, Canada, an early leader, is under pressure to keep up. The federal government is currently developing  a strategy for supporting the country’s evolving quantum sector and, ultimately, getting a return on its approximately $1-billion investment over the past decade [emphasis mine].

I wonder where the “approximately $1-billion … ” figure came from. I ask because some years ago MP Peter Julian asked the government for information about how much Canadian federal money had been invested in nanotechnology. The government replied with sheets of paper (a pile approximately 2 inches high) that had funding disbursements from various ministries. Each ministry had its own method with different categories for listing disbursements and the titles for the research projects were not necessarily informative for anyone outside a narrow specialty. (Peter Julian’s assistant had kindly sent me a copy of the response they had received.) The bottom line is that it would have been close to impossible to determine the amount of federal funding devoted to nanotechnology using that data. So, where did the $1-billion figure come from?

In any event, it will be interesting to see how the Council of Canadian Academies assesses the ‘quantum’ situation in its more academically inclined, “The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada,” when it’s released later this year (2018).

Finally, you can find Semeniuk’s October 2017 article here but be aware it’s behind a paywall.

Whither we goest?

Despite any doubts one might have about Lazaridis’ approach to research and technology, his tremendous investment and support cannot be denied. Without him, Canada’s quantum research efforts would be substantially less significant. As for the ‘cowboys’ in Vancouver, it takes a certain temperament to found a start-up company and it seems the D-Wave folks have more in common with Lazaridis than they might like to admit. As for the Quanta graduate  programme, it’s early days yet and no one should ever count out Alberta.

Meanwhile, one can continue to hope that a more thoughtful approach to regional collaboration will be adopted so Canada can continue to blaze trails in the field of quantum research.

London gets its first Chief Digital Officer (CDO)

A report commissioned from 2thinknow by Business Insider ranks the 25 most high-tech cities in the world (Vancouver, Canada rates as 14th on this list) is featured in an Aug. 25, 2017 news item on the Daily Hive; Vancouver,

The ranking was selected on 10 factors related to technological advancement, which included the number of patents filed per capita, startups, tech venture capitalists, ranking in other innovation datasets, and level of smartphone use.

Topping the list, which was released this month, is San Fransisco’s “Silicon Valley,” which “wins in just about every category.” New York comes in second place, followed by London [UK; emphasis mine], Los Angeles, and Seoul.

Intriguingly, London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan announced a new Chief Digital Officer for the city just a few days later. From an August 29, 2017 news item by Michael Moore for Beta News,

Theo Blackwell, a former cabinet member at Camden Council, will take responsibility for helping London continue to be the technology powerhouse it has become over the past few years.

Mr Blackwell will work closely with the Mayor’s office, particularly the Smart London Board, to create a new “Smart London Plan” that looks to outline how the capital can benefit from embracing new technologies, with cybersecurity, open data and connectivity all at the forefront.

He will also look to build collaboration across London’s boroughs when it comes to public technology schemes, and encourage the digital transformation of public services.

“The new chief digital officer post is an amazing opportunity to make our capital even more open to innovation, support jobs and investment and make our public services more effective,” he said in a statement.

An August 25, 2017 Mayor of London press release, which originated the news item, provides a more detailed look at the position and the motives for creating it,

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has today (25 August [2017]) appointed Theo Blackwell as the capital’s first ever Chief Digital Officer (CDO).

As London’s first CDO, Theo will play a leading role in realising the Mayor’s ambition to make London the world’s smartest city, ensuring that the capital’s status as a global tech hub helps transform the way public services are designed and delivered, making them more accessible, efficient and responsive to the needs of Londoners. The appointment fulfils a key manifesto commitment made by the Mayor.

He joins the Mayor’s team following work at GovTech accelerator Public Group, advising start-ups on the growing market in local public services, and was previously Head of Policy & Public Affairs for the video games industry’s trade body, Ukie – where he ran a ‘Next Gen Skills’ campaign to get coding back on the curriculum.

Theo brings more than 20 years of experience in technology and digital transformation in both the public and private sector.  In his role as cabinet member for finance, technology and growth at Camden Council, Theo has established Camden as London’s leading digital borough through its use of public data – and this year they received national recognition as Digital Leaders ‘Council of the year’.

Theo also sits on the Advisory Board of Digital Leaders and is a director of Camden Town Unlimited, a Business Improvement District which pioneered new start-up incubation in ‘meanwhile’ space.

Theo will work closely with the Mayor’s Smart London Board to develop a new Smart London Plan, and will play a central role in building collaboration across London’s boroughs, and businesses, to drive the digital transformation of public services, as well as supporting the spread of innovation through common technology standards and better data-sharing.

Theo will also promote manifesto ambitions around pan-London collaboration on connectivity, digital inclusion, cyber-security and open data. He will also focus on scoping work for the London Office for Technology & Innovation that was announced by the Mayor at London Tech Week.

London already has more than 47,000 digital technology companies, employing approximately 240,000 people. It is forecast that the number of tech companies will increase by a third and a further 44,500 jobs will have been created by 2026.

The capital is also racing ahead with new technologies, using it for ticketing and contactless on the transport network, while the London Datastore is an open resource with vast amounts of data about all areas of the city, and tech start-ups have used this open data to create innovative new apps.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said:

I am determined to make London the world’s leading ‘smart city’ with digital technology and data at the heart of making our capital a better place to live, work and visit. We already lead in digital technology, data science and innovation and I want us to make full use of this in transforming our public services for Londoners and the millions of visitors to our great city.

I am delighted to appoint Theo Blackwell as London’s first Chief Digital Officer, and I know he will use his experience working in the technology sector and developing public services to improve the lives of all Londoners.

Theo Blackwell said:

The new Chief Digital Officer post is an amazing opportunity to make our capital even more open to innovation, support jobs and investment and make our public services more effective. The pace of change over the next decade requires public services to develop a stronger relationship with the tech sector.  Our purpose is to fully harness London’s world-class potential to make our public services faster and more reliable at doing things we expect online, but also adaptable enough to overcome the capital’s most complex challenges.

Antony Walker, Deputy CEO of techUK, said:

techUK has long argued that London needed a Chief Digital Officer to ensure that London makes the best possible use of new digital technologies. The appointment of Theo Blackwell is good news for Londoners. The smart use of new digital technologies can improve the lives of people living in or visiting London. Theo Blackwell brings a deep understanding of both the opportunities ahead and the challenges of implementing new digital technologies to address the city’s most pressing problems. This appointment is an important step forward to London being at the forefront of tech innovation to create smart places and communities where citizens want to live, work and thrive.

Councillor Claire Kober, Chair of London Councils, said:

The appointment of London’s first Chief Digital Officer fills an important role providing needed digital leadership for London’s public services.  Theo will bring his longstanding experience working with other borough leaders, which I think is critical as we develop new approaches to developing, procuring and scaling the best digital solutions across the capital.

Robin Knowles, Founder and CEO of Digital Leaders, said:

Theo Blackwell has huge experience and is a fabulous appointment as the capital’s first Chief Digital Officer.  He will do a great job for London.

Doteveryone founder, Baroness Martha Lane Fox, said:

Digital leadership is a major challenge for the public sector, as the new Chief Digital Officer for London Theo’s track-record delivering real change in local government and his work in the tech sector brings real experience to this role.

Mike Flowers, First Chief Analytics Officer for New York City and Chief Analytics Officer at Enigma Technologies, said:

Theo is a pragmatic visionary with that rare combination of tech savvy and human focus that the task ahead of him requires. I congratulate Mayor Khan on his decision to trust him with this critical role, and I’m very happy for the residents of London whose lives will be improved by the better use of data and technology by their government. Theo gets results.

It’s always possible that there’s a mastermind involved in the timing of these announcements but sometimes they’re just a reflection of a trend. Cities have their moments just like people do and it seems like London may be on an upswing. From an August 18 (?), 2017 opinion piece by Gavin Poole (Chief Executive Officer, Here East) for ITProPortal,

Recently released data from London & Partners indicates that record levels of venture capital investment are flooding into the London tech sector, with a record £1.1 billion pounds being invested since the start of the year. Strikingly, 2017 has seen a fourfold increase in investment compared with 2013. This indicates that, despite Brexit fears, London retains its crown as Europe’s number one tech hub for global investors but we must make sure that we keep that place by protecting access to the world’s best talent.

As the tech sector continues to outperform the rest of the UK economy, London’s place in it will become all the more important. When London does well, so too does the rest of the UK. Mega-deals from challenger brands like Monzo and Improbable, and the recent opening of Europe’s newest technology innovation destination, Plexal, at Here East have helped to cement the tech sector’s future in the medium-term. Government too has recognised the strength of the sector; earlier this month the Department for Culture, Media and Sport rebranded as the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. This name change, 25 years after the department’s creation, signifies how much things have developed. There is now also a Minister of State for Digital who covers everything from broadband and mobile connectivity to the creative industries. This visible commitment by the Government to put digital at the heart of its agenda should be welcomed.

There are lots of reasons for London’s tech success: start-ups and major corporates look to London for its digital and geographical connectivity, the entrepreneurialism of its tech talent and the vibrancy of its urban life. We continue to lead Europe on all of these fronts and Sadiq Khan’s #LondonIsOpen campaign has made clear that the city remains welcoming and accessible. In fact, there’s no shortage of start-ups proclaiming the great things about London. Melissa Morris, CEO and Founder, Lantum, a company that recently secured £5.3 in funding in London said “London is the world’s coolest city – it attracts some of the most interesting people from across the world… We’ve just closed a round of funding, and our plans are very much about growth”.

As for Vancouver, we don’t have any science officers or technology officers or anything of that ilk. Our current mayor, Gregor Robertson, who pledged to reduce homelessness almost 10 years ago has experienced a resounding failure with regard to that pledge but his greenest city pledge has enjoyed more success. As far as I’m aware the mayor and the current city council remain blissfully uninvolved in major initiatives to encourage science and technology efforts although there was a ‘sweetheart’ real estate deal for local technology company, Hootsuite. A Feb. 18, 2014 news item on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) website provides a written description of the deal but there is also this video,

Robertson went on to win his election despite the hint of financial misdoings in the video but there is another election* coming in 2018. The city official in the video, Penny Ballem was terminated in September 2015 *due to what seemed to be her attempts to implement policy at a pace some found disconcerting*. In the meantime, the Liberal party which made up our provincial government until recently (July 2017) was excoriated for its eagerness to accept political money and pledged to ‘change the rules’ as did the parties which were running in opposition. As far as I’m aware, there have been no changes that will impace provincial or municipal politicians in the near future.

Getting back to government initiatives that encourage science and technology efforts in Vancouver, there is the Cascadia Innovation Corridor. Calling it governmental is a bit of a stretch as it seems to be a Microsoft initiative that found favour with the governments of Washington state and the province of British Columbia; Vancouver will be one of the happy recipients. See my Feb. 28, 2017 posting and August 28, 2017 posting for more details about the proposed Corridor.

In any event, I’d like to see a science policy and at this point I don’t care if it’s a city policy or a provincial policy.

*’elections’ corrected to ‘election’ and ‘due to what seemed to be her attempts to implement policy at a pace some found disconcerting’ added for clarity on August 31, 2017.

High speed rail link for Cascadia Innovation Corridor

In a Feb. 28, 2017 posting I featured an announcement about what I believe is the first  project from the British Columbia (province of Canada) and Washington State (US) government’s joint Cascadia Innovation Corridor initiative:  the Cascadia Analytics Cooperative, During the telephone press conference a couple of the participants joked about hyperloop (transportation pods in vacuum tubes) and  being able to travel between Vancouver (Canada) and Seattle (US) in minutes. It seems that might not have been quite the joke I assumed. Kenneth Chan in an Aug. 14, 2017 posting for the Daily Hive announced a high-speed rail feasibility study is underway (Note: Links have been removed),

According to KUOW public radio, the study began in late-July and will be conducted by a consultant at a cost of US$300,000 – down from the budgeted USD$1 million when the study was first announced earlier this year in Governor Jay Inslee’s proposed state budget. The budget bill proposed Washington State stations at locations such as Bellingham, Everett, SeaTac International Airport, Tacoma, Olympia, and Vancouver, Washington.

The idea has received the full backing of Washington State-based Microsoft, which supported the study with an additional $50,000 contribution. [emphasis mine] Engineering consultancy firm CH2M, which has offices in Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland, has been contracted to perform the study.

Interest in such a rail link is spurred from the Cascadia Innovation Corridor agreement signed by the government leaders of BC and Washington State last fall. The agreement committed both jurisdictions to growing the Vancouver-Seattle corridor into a tech corridor and innovation hub and improving transportation connections, such as high-speed rail.

“Why not a high speed train from Vancouver to Seattle to Portland? If we lived in Europe it would already be there,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer, at a recent Portland conference on regional policy. “We need to raise our sights and our ambition level as a region.”

Microsoft is very interested in facilitating greater ease of movement, a development which causes me to to feel some unease as mentioned in my February 28, 2017 posting,

I look forward to hearing more about the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative and the Cascadia Innovation Corridor as they develop. This has the potential to be very exciting although I do have some concerns such as MIcrosoft and its agendas, both stated and unstated. After all, the Sept. 2016 meeting was convened by Microsoft and its public affairs/lobbying group and the topic was innovation, which is code for business and as hinted earlier, business is not synonymous with social good. Having said that I’m not about to demonize business either. I just think a healthy dose of skepticism is called for. Good things can happen but we need to ensure they do.

Since February 2017, the government in British Columbia has changed hands and is now led by James Horgan of the New Democratic Party. Like Christy Clark and the Liberals before them, this provincial government does not have any science policy, a ministry of science (senior or junior), or any evidence of independent science advice. There has been (and may still be, it’s hard to tell) a Premier’s Technology Council, a BC Innovation Council (formerly the Science Council of BC), and #BCTECH Strategy which hie more to business and applied science than an inclusive ‘science strategy’ with attendant government agencies.

Canadian children to learn computer coding from kindergarten through to high school

Government officials are calling the new $50M programme to teach computer coding skills to approximately 500,000 Canadian children from kindergarten to grade 12, CanCode (h/t June 14, 2017 news item on phys.org). Here’s more from the June 14, 2017 Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada news release,,

Young Canadians will get the skills they need for the well-paying jobs of the future as a result of a $50-million program that gives them the opportunity to learn coding and other digital skills.

The Honourable Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, together with the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science, today launched CanCode, a new program that, over the next two years, will give 500,000 students from kindergarten to grade 12 the opportunity to learn the in-demand skills that will prepare them for future jobs.

The program also aims to encourage more young women, Indigenous Canadians and other under-represented groups to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math. In addition, it will equip 500 teachers across the country with the training and tools to teach digital skills and coding.

Many jobs today rely on the ability of Canadian workers to solve problems using digital skills. The demand for such skills will only intensify as the number of software and data companies increases—whether they sell music online or design self-driving cars, for example. That’s why the government is investing in the skills that prepare young Canadians for the jobs of tomorrow.

This program is part of the Innovation and Skills Plan, a multi-year strategy to create well-paying jobs for the middle class and those working hard to join it.

 

Quotes

“Our government is investing in a program that will equip young Canadians with the skills they need for a future in which every job will require some level of digital ability. Coding teaches our young people how to work as a team to solve difficult problems in creative ways. That’s how they will become the next great innovators and entrepreneurs that Canada needs to succeed.”

– The Honourable Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development

“Coding skills are highly relevant in today’s scientific and technological careers, and they will only become more important in the future. That’s why it is essential that we teach these skills to young Canadians today so they have an advantage when they choose to pursue a career as a scientist, researcher or engineer. Our government is proud to support their curiosity, their ambition and their desire to build a bolder, brighter future for all Canadians.”

– The Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science

Quick Facts

  • Funding applicants must be not-for-profit organizations incorporated in Canada. They must have a minimum of three years of experience delivering education-related programs to young Canadians.
  • The deadline for applications for project funding is July 26, 2017 [emphasis mine].

Associated Links

Exciting stuff, eh?

I was a bit curious about how the initiative will be executed since education is a provincial responsibility. The answers are on the ‘CanCode funding application‘ page,

The CanCode program aims to provide coding and digital skills learning opportunities to a diverse set of participants, principally students from kindergarten to grade 12 (K-12) across Canada, including traditionally underrepresented groups, as well as their teachers. The program will consider proposals for initiatives that run until the program end date of March 31, 2019.

Funding

Maximum contribution funding to any one recipient cannot exceed $5 million per year, and the need for the contribution must be clearly demonstrated by the applicant. The level of funding provided by the program will be contingent upon the assessment of the proposal and the availability of program funds.

Proposals may include funding from other levels of government, private sector or non-profit partners, however, total funding from all federal, provincial/territorial and municipal sources cannot exceed 100%.

Eligible costs

Eligible costs are the costs directly related to the proposal that respect all conditions and limitations of the program and that will be eligible for claim as set out in the Contribution Agreement (CA) if the proposal is approved for funding.

Eligible costs include:

  • Administrative operating costs, including travel related to delivery of training (limited to no more than 10% of total eligible costs except for approved recipients delivering initiatives in Canada’s Far North due to high costs associated with travel, inclement weather, costs of accommodation and food)
  • Direct costs to deliver training (including for training delivery personnel, space rental, materials, etc.)
  • Costs for required equipment limited to no more than 20% of total eligible costs
  • Costs to develop and administer online training

Eligibility details

Essential criteria for assessment

To qualify for funding, your organization:

  • Must be a not-for-profit organization incorporated in Canada; and
  • Must have a minimum of three years’ experience in the delivery of coding and digital education programs to K-12 youth and/or their teachers.

Your funding proposal must also clearly demonstrate that:

  • Your proposed initiative meets the objectives of the program in terms of target participants and content (e.g. computational thinking, coding concepts, programming robotics, internet safety, teacher training);
  • Your initiative will be delivered at no cost to participants;
  • With program funding, your organization will have the resource capacity and expertise, either internally or through partnerships, to successfully deliver the proposed initiative; and
  • You can deliver the proposed initiative within the program timeframe.

Asset criteria for assessment

While not essential requirements, proposals will also be assessed on the degree to which they include one or more of the following elements:

  • Content that maps to provincial/territorial educational curricula (e.g. lessons for teachers on how to integrate coding/digital skills into the classroom; topics/content that support current curricula);
  • Development of tools and resources that will be made available to students and teachers following a learning opportunity, and which could reinforce or continue learning, and/or reach a broader audience;
  • Partnerships with other organizations, such as school boards, teacher associations, community organizations, and other organizations delivering coding/digital skills;
  • Private sector funding or partnerships that can leverage federal contributions to deliver programming to a wider audience or to enhance or expand initiatives and content;
  • A demonstrated ability to reach traditionally underrepresented groups such as girls, Indigenous youth, disabled, and at-risk youth;
  • A demonstrated ability to deliver services on First Nations Reserves; or
  • A demonstrated ability to reach underserved locations in Canada, such as rural, remote and northern communities.

Eligibility self-assessment

Before you get started, take the following self-assessment to ensure your proposed initiative/project is eligible for funding. If you answer yes to all of the questions below, you are eligible to apply:

  • Are you a not-for-profit organization incorporated in Canada? Are you able to provide articles of incorporation?
  • Has your organization been delivering coding/digital skills education to youth within the range of kindergarten to grade 12 and/or teachers for at least three years?
  • Can your proposed initiative/project be delivered by March 31, 2019?
  • Does your proposed initiative/project provide any of the following: development and delivery of training and educational initiatives for K-12 students to learn digital skills, coding and related concepts (e.g. in-class instruction, after-school programs, summer camps, etc.); development and delivery of training and professional development initiatives for teacher to develop the skills and confidence to introduce digital skills, coding and related concepts into the classroom (e.g. teacher training courses, workshops, etc.); development of online resources/tools to support and enhance coding and digital skills learning initiatives for youth and/or teachers.

How to apply

When you click “Apply now”, you will be prompted to submit a basic form to collect your contact information. We will then contact you to provide you with the application package.

[Go here to Apply now]

Contact information

For general questions and comments, please contact the CanCode program.

Telephone (toll-free in Canada): 1-800-328-6189
Telephone (Ottawa): 613-954-5031
Fax: 343-291-1913
TTY (for hearing-impaired): 1-866-694-8389
By email
Chat now
Business hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (Eastern Time)
By mail: CanCode
C.D. Howe Building
235 Queen Street, 1st floor, West Tower
Ottawa, ON  K1A 0H5
Canada

For anyone curious about just how much work is involved (from the Apply for CanCode funding page;Note: contact form not included),

Please complete and submit the form below and we will contact you within 2 business days to provide you with an application package.

Application package

A complete application package, consisting of a completed Application Form, a Project Work Plan, a Budget, and such additional supporting documentation as required by the program to fully assess the proposal’s merit to be funded, must be submitted on or before July 26, 2017 to be considered.

Supporting documentation includes, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Corporate documents, e.g. articles of corporation;
  • Financial statements from the last three years;
  • Information on any contributors/partners and their roles and resources in support of the project;
  • A detailed budget outlining forecasted total costs and per participant cost of delivering the proposed initiative;
  • A detailed work plan providing a description of all project activities and timelines, as well as overall expected results and benefits;
  • Information on experience/skills of key personnel;
  • Copies of any funding or partnership agreements relevant to the proposal;
  • Letters of support from partners, previous clientele, other relevant stakeholders;

Application intake

The program will accept proposals until July 26, 2017 [emphasis mine], whereupon the call for proposals will be closed. Should funding remain available following the assessment and funding decisions regarding proposals received during this intake period, further calls for proposals may be issued.

If you keep scrolling down you’ll find the contact form.

Applicants sure don’t much time to prepare their submissions from which I infer that interested parties have already been contacted or apprised that this programme was in the works.

Also, for those of us in British Columbia, this is not the first government initiative directed at children’s computer coding skills. In January 2016, Premier Christy Clark* announced a provincial programme  (my Jan. 19, 2016 posting; scroll down about 55% of the way for the discussion about ‘talent’ and several months later announced there would be funding for the programme (June 10, 2016 Office of the Premier news release about funding). i wonder if these federal and provincial efforts are going to be coordinated?

For more insight into the BC government’s funding, there’s Tracy Sherlock’s Sept. 3, 2016 article for the Vancouver Sun.

For anyone wanting to keep up with Canadian government science-related announcements, there are the two minister’s separate twitter feeds:

@ministerISED

@ScienceMin

*As of June 16, 2017, Premier Clark appears to be on her way out of government after her party failed by one seat to win a majority in the Legislative Assembly. However, there is a great deal of wrangling. Presumably the funding for computer coding programmes in the schools was locked in.

Health technology and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) two-tier health system ‘Viewpoint’

There’s a lot of talk and handwringing about Canada’s health care system, which ebbs and flows in almost predictable cycles. Jesse Hirsh in a May 16, 2017 ‘Viewpoints’ segment (an occasional series run as part the of the CBC’s [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] flagship, daily news programme, The National) dared to reframe the discussion as one about technology and ‘those who get it’  [the technologically literate] and ‘those who don’t’,  a state Hirsh described as being illiterate as you can see and hear in the following video.

I don’t know about you but I’m getting tired of being called illiterate when I don’t know something. To be illiterate means you can’t read and write and as it turns out I do both of those things on a daily basis (sometimes even in two languages). Despite my efforts, I’m ignorant about any number of things and those numbers keep increasing day by day. BTW, Is there anyone who isn’t having trouble keeping up?

Moving on from my rhetorical question, Hirsh has a point about the tech divide and about the need for discussion. It’s a point that hadn’t occurred to me (although I think he’s taking it in the wrong direction). In fact, this business of a tech divide already exists if you consider that people who live in rural environments and need the latest lifesaving techniques or complex procedures or access to highly specialized experts have to travel to urban centres. I gather that Hirsh feels that this divide isn’t necessarily going to be an urban/rural split so much as an issue of how technically literate you and your doctor are.  That’s intriguing but then his argumentation gets muddled. Confusingly, he seems to be suggesting that the key to the split is your access (not your technical literacy) to artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms (presumably he’s referring to big data and data analytics). I expect access will come down more to money than technological literacy.

For example, money is likely to be a key issue when you consider his big pitch is for access to IBM’s Watson computer. (My Feb. 28, 2011 posting titled: Engineering, entertainment, IBM’s Watson, and product placement focuses largely on Watson, its winning appearances on the US television game show, Jeopardy, and its subsequent adoption into the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine in a project to bring Watson into the examining room with patients.)

Hirsh’s choice of IBM’s Watson is particularly interesting for a number of reasons. (1) Presumably there are companies other than IBM in this sector. Why do they not rate a mention?  (2) Given the current situation with IBM and the Canadian federal government’s introduction of the Phoenix payroll system (a PeopleSoft product customized by IBM), which is  a failure of monumental proportions (a Feb. 23, 2017 article by David Reevely for the Ottawa Citizen and a May 25, 2017 article by Jordan Press for the National Post), there may be a little hesitation, if not downright resistance, to a large scale implementation of any IBM product or service, regardless of where the blame lies. (3) Hirsh notes on the home page for his eponymous website,

I’m presently spending time at the IBM Innovation Space in Toronto Canada, investigating the impact of artificial intelligence and cognitive computing on all sectors and industries.

Yes, it would seem he has some sort of relationship with IBM not referenced in his Viewpoints segment on The National. Also, his description of the relationship isn’t especially illuminating but perhaps it.s this? (from the IBM Innovation Space  – Toronto Incubator Application webpage),

Our incubator

The IBM Innovation Space is a Toronto-based incubator that provides startups with a collaborative space to innovate and disrupt the market. Our goal is to provide you with the tools needed to take your idea to the next level, introduce you to the right networks and help you acquire new clients. Our unique approach, specifically around client engagement, positions your company for optimal growth and revenue at an accelerated pace.

OUR SERVICES

IBM Bluemix
IBM Global Entrepreneur
Softlayer – an IBM Company
Watson

Startups partnered with the IBM Innovation Space can receive up to $120,000 in IBM credits at no charge for up to 12 months through the Global Entrepreneurship Program (GEP). These credits can be used in our products such our IBM Bluemix developer platform, Softlayer cloud services, and our world-renowned IBM Watson ‘cognitive thinking’ APIs. We provide you with enterprise grade technology to meet your clients’ needs, large or small.

Collaborative workspace in the heart of Downtown Toronto
Mentorship opportunities available with leading experts
Access to large clients to scale your startup quickly and effectively
Weekly programming ranging from guest speakers to collaborative activities
Help with funding and access to local VCs and investors​

Final comments

While I have some issues with Hirsh’s presentation, I agree that we should be discussing the issues around increased automation of our health care system. A friend of mine’s husband is a doctor and according to him those prescriptions and orders you get when leaving the hospital? They are not made up by a doctor so much as they are spit up by a computer based on the data that the doctors and nurses have supplied.

GIGO, bias, and de-skilling

Leaving aside the wonders that Hirsh describes, there’s an oldish saying in the computer business, garbage in/garbage out (gigo). At its simplest, who’s going to catch a mistake? (There are lots of mistakes made in hospitals and other health care settings.)

There are also issues around the quality of research. Are all the research papers included in the data used by the algorithms going to be considered equal? There’s more than one case where a piece of problematic research has been accepted uncritically, even if it get through peer review, and subsequently cited many times over. One of the ways to measure impact, i.e., importance, is to track the number of citations. There’s also the matter of where the research is published. A ‘high impact’ journal, such as Nature, Science, or Cell, automatically gives a piece of research a boost.

There are other kinds of bias as well. Increasingly, there’s discussion about algorithms being biased and about how machine learning (AI) can become biased. (See my May 24, 2017 posting: Machine learning programs learn bias, which highlights the issues and cites other FrogHeart posts on that and other related topics.)

These problems are to a large extent already present. Doctors have biases and research can be wrong and it can take a long time before there are corrections. However, the advent of an automated health diagnosis and treatment system is likely to exacerbate the problems. For example, if you don’t agree with your doctor’s diagnosis or treatment, you can search other opinions. What happens when your diagnosis and treatment have become data? Will the system give you another opinion? Who will you talk to? The doctor who got an answer from ‘Watson”? Is she or he going to debate Watson? Are you?

This leads to another issue and that’s automated systems getting more credit than they deserve. Futurists such as Hirsh tend to underestimate people and overestimate the positive impact that automation will have. A computer, data analystics, or an AI system are tools not gods. You’ll have as much luck petitioning one of those tools as you would Zeus.

The unasked question is how will your doctor or other health professional gain experience and skills if they never have to practice the basic, boring aspects of health care (asking questions for a history, reading medical journals to keep up with the research, etc.) and leave them to the computers? There had to be  a reason for calling it a medical ‘practice’.

There are definitely going to be advantages to these technological innovations but thoughtful adoption of these practices (pun intended) should be our goal.

Who owns your data?

Another issue which is increasingly making itself felt is ownership of data. Jacob Brogan has written a provocative May 23, 2017 piece for slate.com asking that question about the data Ancestry.com gathers for DNA testing (Note: Links have been removed),

AncestryDNA’s pitch to consumers is simple enough. For $99 (US), the company will analyze a sample of your saliva and then send back information about your “ethnic mix.” While that promise may be scientifically dubious, it’s a relatively clear-cut proposal. Some, however, worry that the service might raise significant privacy concerns.

After surveying AncestryDNA’s terms and conditions, consumer protection attorney Joel Winston found a few issues that troubled him. As he noted in a Medium post last week, the agreement asserts that it grants the company “a perpetual, royalty-free, world-wide, transferable license to use your DNA.” (The actual clause is considerably longer.) According to Winston, “With this single contractual provision, customers are granting Ancestry.com the broadest possible rights to own and exploit their genetic information.”

Winston also noted a handful of other issues that further complicate the question of ownership. Since we share much of our DNA with our relatives, he warned, “Even if you’ve never used Ancestry.com, but one of your genetic relatives has, the company may already own identifiable portions of your DNA.” [emphasis mine] Theoretically, that means information about your genetic makeup could make its way into the hands of insurers or other interested parties, whether or not you’ve sent the company your spit. (Maryam Zaringhalam explored some related risks in a recent Slate article.) Further, Winston notes that Ancestry’s customers waive their legal rights, meaning that they cannot sue the company if their information gets used against them in some way.

Over the weekend, Eric Heath, Ancestry’s chief privacy officer, responded to these concerns on the company’s own site. He claims that the transferable license is necessary for the company to provide its customers with the service that they’re paying for: “We need that license in order to move your data through our systems, render it around the globe, and to provide you with the results of our analysis work.” In other words, it allows them to send genetic samples to labs (Ancestry uses outside vendors), store the resulting data on servers, and furnish the company’s customers with the results of the study they’ve requested.

Speaking to me over the phone, Heath suggested that this license was akin to the ones that companies such as YouTube employ when users upload original content. It grants them the right to shift that data around and manipulate it in various ways, but isn’t an assertion of ownership. “We have committed to our users that their DNA data is theirs. They own their DNA,” he said.

I’m glad to see the company’s representatives are open to discussion and, later in the article, you’ll see there’ve already been some changes made. Still, there is no guarantee that the situation won’t again change, for ill this time.

What data do they have and what can they do with it?

It’s not everybody who thinks data collection and data analytics constitute problems. While some people might balk at the thought of their genetic data being traded around and possibly used against them, e.g., while hunting for a job, or turned into a source of revenue, there tends to be a more laissez-faire attitude to other types of data. Andrew MacLeod’s May 24, 2017 article for thetyee.ca highlights political implications and privacy issues (Note: Links have been removed),

After a small Victoria [British Columbia, Canada] company played an outsized role in the Brexit vote, government information and privacy watchdogs in British Columbia and Britain have been consulting each other about the use of social media to target voters based on their personal data.

The U.K.’s information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham [Note: Denham was formerly B.C.’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner], announced last week [May 17, 2017] that she is launching an investigation into “the use of data analytics for political purposes.”

The investigation will look at whether political parties or advocacy groups are gathering personal information from Facebook and other social media and using it to target individuals with messages, Denham said.

B.C.’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner confirmed it has been contacted by Denham.

Macleod’s March 6, 2017 article for thetyee.ca provides more details about the company’s role (note: Links have been removed),

The “tiny” and “secretive” British Columbia technology company [AggregateIQ; AIQ] that played a key role in the Brexit referendum was until recently listed as the Canadian office of a much larger firm that has 25 years of experience using behavioural research to shape public opinion around the world.

The larger firm, SCL Group, says it has worked to influence election outcomes in 19 countries. Its associated company in the U.S., Cambridge Analytica, has worked on a wide range of campaigns, including Donald Trump’s presidential bid.

In late February [2017], the Telegraph reported that campaign disclosures showed that Vote Leave campaigners had spent £3.5 million — about C$5.75 million [emphasis mine] — with a company called AggregateIQ, run by CEO Zack Massingham in downtown Victoria.

That was more than the Leave side paid any other company or individual during the campaign and about 40 per cent of its spending ahead of the June referendum that saw Britons narrowly vote to exit the European Union.

According to media reports, Aggregate develops advertising to be used on sites including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, then targets messages to audiences who are likely to be receptive.

The Telegraph story described Victoria as “provincial” and “picturesque” and AggregateIQ as “secretive” and “low-profile.”

Canadian media also expressed surprise at AggregateIQ’s outsized role in the Brexit vote.

The Globe and Mail’s Paul Waldie wrote “It’s quite a coup for Mr. Massingham, who has only been involved in politics for six years and started AggregateIQ in 2013.”

Victoria Times Colonist columnist Jack Knox wrote “If you have never heard of AIQ, join the club.”

The Victoria company, however, appears to be connected to the much larger SCL Group, which describes itself on its website as “the global leader in data-driven communications.”

In the United States it works through related company Cambridge Analytica and has been involved in elections since 2012. Politico reported in 2015 that the firm was working on Ted Cruz’s presidential primary campaign.

And NBC and other media outlets reported that the Trump campaign paid Cambridge Analytica millions to crunch data on 230 million U.S. adults, using information from loyalty cards, club and gym memberships and charity donations [emphasis mine] to predict how an individual might vote and to shape targeted political messages.

That’s quite a chunk of change and I don’t believe that gym memberships, charity donations, etc. were the only sources of information (in the US, there’s voter registration, credit card information, and more) but the list did raise my eyebrows. It would seem we are under surveillance at all times, even in the gym.

In any event, I hope that Hirsh’s call for discussion is successful and that the discussion includes more critical thinking about the implications of Hirsh’s ‘Brave New World’.

Nanotech Security Corp. stock declining but Cantor Fitzgerald Canada analyst Ralph Garcea gives the stock a buy rating

Linda Rogers has written a Feb. 29, 2016 article about a Vancouver-based company rather perturbingly titled ‘What’s Propelling Nanotech Security Corp to Decline So Much?‘ for Small Cap Wired,

The stock of Nanotech Security Corp (CVE:NTS) is a huge mover today! The stock is down 3.23% or $0.04 after the news [Nanotech Security announced its first quarter fiscal 2016 results in a Feb. 29, 2016 news release], hitting $1.2 per share. … The move comes after 7 months negative chart setup for the $68.48M company. It was reported on Feb, 29 [2016] by Barchart.com. We have $1.06 PT which if reached, will make CVE:NTS worth $8.22 million less.

The Feb. 29, 2016 Nanotech Security news release (summary version) highlights the good news first,

  • Revenue of $1.5 million consistent with the same period last year.  Security Features contributed revenues of $569,000 largely from development contracts and Surveillance delivered $940,000.
  • Gross margin improved to 50% up from 34% in the same period last year.  The improvement reflects the increased mix of higher margin Security Features revenue.
  • Renewed a $1.0 million banknote security feature development contract. The Company successfully renewed the third and final phase of a banknote development contract with a top ten issuing authority to develop a unique Optically Variable Device (“OVD”) security feature for incorporation into future banknotes.  The final phase is expected to generate revenues of approximately $1.0 million.
  • Signed new $3.0 million KolourOptik banknote development contract. The Company signed a new three phase development contract to use the KolourOptik™ nanotechnology to develop a unique OVD security features with another G8 country for incorporation into future banknotes.
  • Strategic meetings with large international banknote issuing authority.  The Company continues to work with a large international banknote issuing authority to deliver a significant volume of colour shifting Optical Thin Film (“OTF”), and partner with our KolourOptik™ technology.  Management continues to devote a significant amount of time and resources in advancing these opportunities.
  • Signed a Memorandum of Understanding (“MOU”) with Hueck Folien, a European manufacturer to supply OTF to the banknote market.  The MOU contemplates an operational agreement to collaborate in the volume production of a colour shifting OTF security feature.  The OTF product is anticipated to initially be used in banknotes as threads and then expand into other markets in the future.

Doug Blakeway, Nanotech’s Chairman and CEO commented, “These two development contracts are material achievements.  Issuing authorities are paying us – something not common in the industry – to design unique banknote security features with our OTF and KolourOptik™ technologies.”  He further added, “Nanotech’s team has scaled the Hueck Folien production facility to where we believe together we can provide the initial volumes demanded by a top-ten issuing authority.  Our relationship with Hueck Folien continues to funnel security feature opportunities to Nanotech.”

The company’s sadder news can be found in their seven-page Feb. 29, 2016 news release (PDF). Their net earnings for the final quarter of 2015 and 2014 were both losses but in 2014 their loss was (931,271) and in 2015 it was (1,746,335). Still, the company’s gross profit from revenue for the same time periods was 50% in 2015 as opposed to 34% in 2014 despite slightly less revenue in 2015.

Assuming I’ve read this information correctly, Nanotech Security does seem to be in a fragile situation but that can change. After all, IBM was in serious trouble for a number of years during the 1990s when there was even talk the company might go bankrupt. As far as I’m aware, IBM is no longer in imminent danger of disappearing from the scene. *ETA March 9, 2016: It seems I used the wrong example if Robert X. Cringley’s March 9, 2016 article ‘What’s happening at IBM? (It’s dying)‘ for Beta News is to be believed.)* Getting back to my point, companies do go through cycles and it can be difficult to determine exactly what’s happening at some of the earlier stages.

Certainly, Cantor Fitzgerald Canada analyst Ralph Garcea has an optimistic view of Nanotech Security’s prospects according to a March 1, 2016 article by Nick Waddell for cantech letter,

Nanotech Security (TSXV:NTS) offers a better and more secure solution in multiple market segments that together are worth billions of dollars per year, says Cantor Fitzgerald Canada analyst Ralph Garcea.

This morning [March 1, 2016], Garcea initiated coverage of Nanotech with a “Buy” rating and a one-year price target of $2.50, implying a return of 110 per cent at the time of publication.

Garcea notes that Nanotech has already created solutions for the consumer electronics, brand identification and currency segments. He points out that one of the company’s biggest differentiators is that its solution can be embedded onto almost any material. This is important, he says, because it means that security can be embedded into places it previously could not go, such as directly onto a pharmaceutical pill.

Shares of Nanotech Security closed today [March 1, 2016] up 2.5 per cent to $1.22.

I have written about Nanotech Security frequently and believe the most recent is a Dec. 29, 2015 posting. For those unfamiliar with the company’s technology, it’s based on the structures found on the blue morpho butterfly. The holes in the butterfly’s wings lend it certain optical properties which the company mimics for its anti-counterfeiting technology.

One final comment, I am not endorsing the company or any of the analysis of the company’s financial situation and prospects.

A study in contrasts: innovation and education strategies in US and British Columbia (Canada)

It’s always interesting to contrast two approaches to the same issue, in this case, innovation and education strategies designed to improve the economies of the United States and of British Columbia, a province in Canada.

One of the major differences regarding education in the US and in Canada is that the Canadian federal government, unlike the US federal government, has no jurisdiction over the matter. Education is strictly a provincial responsibility.

I recently wrote a commentary (a Jan. 19, 2016 posting) about the BC government’s Jan. 18, 2016 announcement of its innovation strategy in a special emphasis on the education aspect. Premier Christy Clark focused largely on the notion of embedding courses on computer coding in schools from K-12 (kindergarten through grade 12) as Jonathon Narvey noted in his Jan. 19, 2016 event recap for Betakit,

While many in the tech sector will be focused on the short-term benefits of a quick injection of large capital [a $100M BC Tech Fund as part of a new strategy was announced in Dec. 2015 but details about the new #BCTECH Strategy were not shared until Jan. 18, 2016], the long-term benefits for the local tech sector are being seeded in local schools. More than 600,000 BC students will be getting basic skills in the K-12 curriculum, with coding academies, more work experience electives and partnerships between high school and post-secondary institutions.

Here’s what I had to say in my commentary (from the Jan. 19, 2016 posting),

… the government wants to embed  computer coding into the education system for K-12 (kindergarten to grade 12). One determined reporter (Canadian Press if memory serves) attempted to find out how much this would cost. No answer was forthcoming although there were many words expended. Whether this failure was due to ignorance (disturbing!) or a reluctance to share (also disturbing!) was impossible to tell. Another reporter (Georgia Straight) asked about equipment (coding can be taught with pen and paper but hardware is better). … Getting back to the reporter’s question, no answer was forthcoming although the speaker was loquacious.

Another reporter asked if the government had found any jurisdictions doing anything similar regarding computer coding. It seems they did consider other jurisdictions although it was claimed that BC is the first to strike out in this direction. Oddly, no one mentioned Estonia, known in some circles as E-stonia, where the entire school system was online by the late 1990s in an initiative known as the ‘Tiger Leap Foundation’ which also supported computer coding classes in secondary school (there’s more in Tim Mansel’s May 16, 2013 article about Estonia’s then latest initiative to embed computer coding into grade school.) …

Aside from the BC government’s failure to provide details, I am uncomfortable with what I see as an overemphasis on computer coding that suggests a narrow focus on what constitutes a science and technology strategy for education. I find the US approach closer to what I favour although I may be biased since they are building their strategy around nanotechnology education.

The US approach had been announced in dribs and drabs until recently when a Jan. 26, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now indicated a broad-based plan for nanotechnology education (and computer coding),

Over the past 15 years, the Federal Government has invested over $22 billion in R&D under the auspices of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) to understand and control matter at the nanoscale and develop applications that benefit society. As these nanotechnology-enabled applications become a part of everyday life, it is important for students to have a basic understanding of material behavior at the nanoscale, and some states have even incorporated nanotechnology concepts into their K-12 science standards. Furthermore, application of the novel properties that exist at the nanoscale, from gecko-inspired climbing gloves and invisibility cloaks, to water-repellent coatings on clothes or cellphones, can spark students’ excitement about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

An earlier Jan. 25, 2016 White House blog posting by Lisa Friedersdorf and Lloyd Whitman introduced the notion that nanotechnology is viewed as foundational and a springboard for encouraging interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers while outlining several formal and information education efforts,

The Administration’s updated Strategy for American Innovation, released in October 2015, identifies nanotechnology as one of the emerging “general-purpose technologies”—a technology that, like the steam engine, electricity, and the Internet, will have a pervasive impact on our economy and our society, with the ability to create entirely new industries, create jobs, and increase productivity. To reap these benefits, we must train our Nation’s students for these high-tech jobs of the future. Fortunately, the multidisciplinary nature of nanotechnology and the unique and fascinating phenomena that occur at the nanoscale mean that nanotechnology is a perfect topic to inspire students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The Nanotechnology: Super Small Science series [mentioned in my Jan. 21, 2016 posting] is just the latest example of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)’s efforts to educate and inspire our Nation’s students. Other examples include:

The announcement about computer coding and courses being integrated in the US education curricula K-12 was made in US President Barack Obama’s 2016 State of the Union speech and covered in a Jan. 30, 2016 article by Jessica Hullinger for Fast Company,

In his final State Of The Union address earlier this month, President Obama called for providing hands-on computer science classes for all students to make them “job ready on day one.” Today, he is unveiling how he plans to do that with his upcoming budget.

The President’s Computer Science for All Initiative seeks to provide $4 billion in funding for states and an additional $100 million directly to school districts in a push to provide access to computer science training in K-12 public schools. The money would go toward things like training teachers, providing instructional materials, and getting kids involved in computer science early in elementary and middle school.

There are more details in the Hullinger’s article and in a Jan. 30, 2016 White House blog posting by Megan Smith,

Computer Science for All is the President’s bold new initiative to empower all American students from kindergarten through high school to learn computer science and be equipped with the computational thinking skills they need to be creators in the digital economy, not just consumers, and to be active citizens in our technology-driven world. Our economy is rapidly shifting, and both educators and business leaders are increasingly recognizing that computer science (CS) is a “new basic” skill necessary for economic opportunity and social mobility.

CS for All builds on efforts already being led by parents, teachers, school districts, states, and private sector leaders from across the country.

Nothing says one approach has to be better than the other as there’s usually more than one way to accomplish a set of goals. As well, it’s unfair to expect a provincial government to emulate the federal government of a larger country with more money to spend. I just wish the BC government (a) had shared details such as the budget allotment for their initiative and (b) would hint at a more imaginative, long range view of STEM education.

Going back to Estonia one last time, in addition to the country’s recent introduction of computer coding classes in grade school, it has also embarked on a nanotechnology/nanoscience educational and entrepreneurial programme as noted in my Sept. 30, 2014 posting,

The University of Tartu (Estonia) announced in a Sept. 29, 2014 press release an educational and entrepreneurial programme about nanotechnology/nanoscience for teachers and students,

To bring nanoscience closer to pupils, educational researchers of the University of Tartu decided to implement the European Union LLP Comenius project “Quantum Spin-Off – connecting schools with high-tech research and entrepreneurship”. The objective of the project is to build a kind of a bridge: at one end, pupils can familiarise themselves with modern science, and at the other, experience its application opportunities at high-tech enterprises. “We also wish to inspire these young people to choose a specialisation related to science and technology in the future,” added Lukk [Maarika Lukk, Coordinator of the project].

The pupils can choose between seven topics of nanotechnology: the creation of artificial muscles, microbiological fuel elements, manipulation of nanoparticles, nanoparticles and ionic liquids as oil additives, materials used in regenerative medicine, deposition and 3D-characterisation of atomically designed structures and a topic covered in English, “Artificial robotic fish with EAP elements”.

Learning is based on study modules in the field of nanotechnology. In addition, each team of pupils will read a scientific publication, selected for them by an expert of that particular field. In that way, pupils will develop an understanding of the field and of scientific texts. On the basis of the scientific publication, the pupils prepare their own research project and a business plan suitable for applying the results of the project.

In each field, experts of the University of Tartu will help to understand the topics. Participants will visit a nanotechnology research laboratory and enterprises using nanotechnologies.

The project lasts for two years and it is also implemented in Belgium, Switzerland and Greece.

As they say, time will tell.

#BCTECH: funding and strategy

Yesterday, Jan. 18, 2016, British Columbia’s premier, Christy Clark ,announced the second and third pillars of the #BCTECH strategy:  talent and markets [ETA Jan. 21, 2016: the announcement was made at the #BCTECH Summit, Jan. 18 – 19, 2016]. It was one of a series of announcements about the province’s interest and investment in technology under the #BCTECH banner. The first announcement (first pillar) was the $100M BC Tech Fund in December 2015. Before moving on to pillars two and three, here’s a BC Technology Industry Association (BCTIA) Dec. 8, 2015 news release about the fund,

The Province of British Columbia is creating a $100-million venture capital fund as it builds the foundation for a comprehensive technology strategy aimed at stimulating growth in the fast-moving sector, creating jobs and strengthening a diverse economy.

Premier Christy Clark today announced the new BC Tech Fund as part of the first of three economy-building pillars in the B.C. government’s multi-year #BCTECH Strategy that will drive growth and job creation in the multi-billion dollar tech sector.

“B.C.’s technology sector is consistently growing faster than the overall economy making this the perfect time to catch the wave and help smaller companies join in the ranks of economy builders,” said Premier Clark. “With this fund we’re creating a stronger foundation for B.C.’s technology sector, which is a major employer in communities across the province, to shine on the global stage while creating well-paying jobs back at home for British Columbians.”

The BC Tech Fund will help promising tech companies in B.C.’s tech sector by creating an avenue for capital funding, enabling them to take the next step towards joining the ranks of other job-creating tech companies.

The new fund will also help develop a sustainable venture capital system in the province, building on the success of the B.C. Renaissance Capital Fund (BCRCF), the province’s well developed Angel investment community, and responding to current funding needs.

Capital is one of three pillars in the forthcoming #BCTECH Strategy. This first pillar, announced today, also includes continuing to support B.C.’s competitive tax system and research environment.

The remaining two pillars, talent and markets, include actions to deepen the B.C. technology talent pool by developing and attracting the highest quality talent, and actions to make it easier to access new markets. The complete #BCTECH Strategy will be announced in January.

The BC Tech Fund will be in operation in 2016 following an open procurement process to secure a private sector fund manager to administer it. [emphasis mine] The process for identifying a fund manager begins today with a posting for a Negotiated Request for Proposal (NRFP).

B.C.’s technology sector, a key pillar of the BC Jobs Plan, is consistently growing faster than the economy overall. Its continued growth is integral to diversifying the Province’s economy, strengthening B.C.’s business landscape, and creating jobs in B.C. communities. The BC Jobs Plan builds on the strengths of B.C.’s key sectors and its educated and skilled workforce, keeping the province diverse, strong and growing.

In partnership with the BC Innovation Council, the province is hosting B.C.’s first #BCTECH Summit, Jan. 18-19, 2016, where the #BCTECH Strategy will be released in full. The summit will showcase our tech industry and offer opportunities to connect to this growing sector. To register or learn more, go to: http://bctechsummit.ca/

Quotes:

Amrik Virk, Minister of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services –

“We’ve seen phenomenal growth in the technology sector in recent years. The B.C. Tech Strategy will further increase that growth by giving early-stage companies greater access to the venture capital they need to start off their business on the right footing. The access to capital is the boost entrepreneurs need to build their companies, commercialize and create high-paying, skilled jobs.”

Teresa Wat, Minister of International Trade and Minister Responsible for Asia Pacific Strategy and Multiculturalism –

“Venture capital is a critical building block to stimulating innovative ideas in the marketplace and this new fund reflects our commitment to creating an investment environment that stimulates new economic growth.”

Shirley Bond, Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training and Responsible for Labour –

“The technology sector is one of eight key sectors identified in the BC Jobs Plan and it is a crucial job creator, supporting innovation and productivity across all industries. All British Columbians stand to benefit from the sector fulfilling its potential.”

Greg Peet, chair, Premier’s Technology Council –

“Government gained a better understanding of what was needed to support growth of the technology sector by speaking with its leaders and influencers. Putting those needs into action has resulted in a strategy that provides promising tech companies with access to the capital they need, and reaffirms government’s commitment to help researchers and innovators succeed in building world class new businesses that create high paying jobs in B.C.”

Bill Tam, president and CEO of the BC Technology Industry Association –

“B.C. is already home to an amazing technology sector, and today’s announcement provides needed support for business development and growth. Government’s venture capital investment is a great start in terms of helping companies expand, and will solidify what many already know: B.C. is the best place to grow a tech company.”

Igor Faletski, chief executive officer, co-founder, Mobify –

“Increasing access to venture capital in British Columbia will be a major boost to many growing technology companies here. At Mobify we know from personal experience how useful early stage programs like the BC Venture Acceleration Program are to startups. The $100 million investment by the B.C. government into the BC Tech Fund will help our companies grow and achieve global leadership even faster.”

Mike Woollatt, chief executive officer, Canadian Venture Capital and Private Equity Association –

“Like B.C., governments around the world recognize that being a strong partner of the venture community reaps rewards for the economy and productivity. This new venture capital fund will be a source of innovations and jobs.”

Paris Gaudet, executive director, Innovation Island –

“Working closely with tech startups delivering the Venture Acceleration Program, I know how venture capital significantly increases a company’s chance of success. That is why I’m thrilled about this announcement as it will propel growth, increase jobs in the tech sector, and expand the number of opportunities available to entrepreneurs.”

Yesterday’s (Jan. 18, 2016) announcement focused largely on the other two pillars of the #BCTECH Strategy, although remarkably few details about any of these pillars have been shared.

Technical briefing or stonewalling?

Four BC government officials were answering questions at the technical briefing but not one* of them wanted (or was allowed?) to be identified as a specific source for information (i.e., quoted). Since they didn’t have much information to give, it wasn’t much of a problem. Here are the names of the four BC government officials: Bobbi Plecas, Associate Deputy Minister, Corporate Initiatives*; John Jacobson, Deputy Minister, Technology, Innovation, and Citizens’ Services; Shannon Baskerville, Deputy Minister, Deputy Minister’s Office; and Bindi Sawchuk, Executive Director, Investment Capital (job titles are from the BC Government online directory as of Jan. 18, 2016).

Let’s start with the money.  Apparently, the $100M fund will be ‘evergreen’ (somehow the money that goes out will be replenished) but no real details were offered as to how that might be achieved. Perhaps they’re hoping for a ‘return on investment’? They weren’t clear. Also, this fund will be in existence for 15 years. No reason was given for the fund’s end date. The government did consult with industry and the $100M amount was considered the optimal size for the fund, not big enough to scare away private investment but enough to ensure adequate government capitalization. Apparently, the plan is to start disbursing funds in 2016 (?) but they have yet to “secure a private sector fund manager to administer it.”

The second pillar is talent. The BC government is trying to make it easier for companies to bring talent from elsewhere (immigrants) while training more people here. No mention was made of the Syrian refugees currently settling here (other jurisdictions such as the UK and Germany, in their distinctive ways, are extending a special welcome to Syrian scientists as I noted in a Dec. 22, 2015 posting). [ETA Jan. 21, 2016: Arizona State University (US) has established an education fund for Syrian refugee students who want to complete their undergraduate or graduate programmes as per a Dec. 31, 2015 posting on the 2020 Science blog.]

Back to talent and training here, the government wants to embed  computer coding into the education system for K-12 (kindergarten to grade 12). One determined reporter (Canadian Press if memory serves) attempted to find out how much this would cost. No answer was forthcoming although there were many words expended. Whether this failure was due to ignorance (disturbing!) or a reluctance to share (also disturbing!) was impossible to tell. Another reporter (Georgia Straight) asked about equipment (coding can be taught with pen and paper but hardware is better). It seems the BC school system is beginning to resemble school systems in the US where districts with parents who can afford to fundraise have an advantage over other districts. Getting back to the reporter’s question, no answer was forthcoming although the speaker was loquacious.

Another reporter asked if the government had found any jurisdictions doing anything similar regarding computer coding. It seems they did consider other jurisdictions although it was claimed that BC is the first to strike out in this direction. Oddly, no one mentioned Estonia, known in some circles as E-stonia, where the entire school system was online by the late 1990s in an initiative known as the ‘Tiger Leap Foundation’ which also supported computer coding classes in secondary school (there’s more in Tim Mansel’s May 16, 2013 article about Estonia’s then latest initiative to embed computer coding into grade school.) There was a review of various countries’ efforts in a March 31, 2012 article for the Guardian; notice what they had to say about South Korea and there’s a more recent and brief mention of the international situation in an Aug. 31, 2015 article on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news online.

Returning yet again to the #BCTECH Strategy, there was a question about BC teachers being able to teach coding (I think it was Canadian Press again). It doesn’t seem the government has thought that aspect through. The speaker who answered most of these questions talked about the coding camps (another initiative with trainers who have specific skill sets [?]) and also noted there would be professional days to help BC teachers figure how to teach coding in the regular classes. No details were given as to how much training and support the teachers would receive. By contrast, the Estonians trained 60 teachers before implementing the initiative.

Hopefully, BC will take notice and adopt the policy although it is  currently embroiled in a dispute with teachers which has reached Canada’s Supreme Court, from a Jan. 14, 2016 article by Ian Bailey for the Globe and Mail,

Canada’s highest court has agreed to hear an appeal in a dispute that has fuelled the volatile relationship between British Columbia teachers and the provincial government in a case that could affect labour relations across the country.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark was education minister [14 years ago] when the province first stripped the teachers’ contract.

This week’s developments come after a bitter, months-long teachers’ strike in 2014 that ended with a six-year contract that included a 7.25-per-cent raise and a $400-million fund to hire bargaining unit members to address class size and composition issues.

Despite past battles, both Mr. Iker [Jim Iker, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation] and Mr. Bernier [current B.C. Education Minister Mike Bernier] insisted there was a good relationship between teachers and the government.

Mr. Iker said teachers are working well with the Liberals on revisions to curriculum, but it was up to teachers to advocate for more funding to address student needs.

Now, the third pillar of the #BCTECH strategy, new markets. The BC government has decided it is one of the best markets for new technology. I am intrigued but not convinced that the average government bureaucrat is going to make any decisions about adopting new technologies as that requires confidence and risk-taking abilities. Looking at those four bureaucrats none of whom was to be quoted in any story about the #BCTECH Strategy that they are charged with implementing, it seems unlikely that any one of those four (or others of their ilk) would make that kind of decision. To be fair, there are reasons why you don’t want bureaucrats to jump on every new idea as these people are the guardians of public welfare and public monies. The question then becomes, how do you get bureaucrats to take some risks without going overboard? As well, bureaucratic systems are not designed for risk-taking. So the next question is, how do you redesign your bureaucratic system to encourage some risk-taking? It’s not fair to ask people to do this sort of thing if you’re not going to support them. On the plus side, they are eliminating some of the red tape. For projects under $250K, requests for proposals are just two pages.

Disappointingly, the emphasis was largely on data and computer coding. There was some talk about life sciences but no larger vision of science and culture was offered. Creativity was mentioned, which seems odd since the presentations were markedly lacking in that quality. (The presentations at the opening were well done and, at times, even I was stirred [mildly] but no creative ground was broken or even hinted at.) The #BCTECH strategy 2016 document does mention creativity (sort of) on page 25 of the print document,

Promote creative thinking as a core competency across the entire curriculum including technical and business education

As part of this move to embed computer coding classes and creativity into the curriculum, they are introducing (from page 25),

New Applied Design, Skills and Technologies education: an experiential, hands-on learning through design and creation that includes skills and concepts from Information Technology Education

The applied design is being offered from K-9 (from page 25),

Students will have the opportunity to specialize in Information Technology, Technology Education or emerging disciplines.

Interestingly, Emily Carr University of Art + Design was not present at the Tech Summit (no presentation, no keynote address, no booth, no mention in the documents). It should be noted that the Council of Canadian Academies included visual and performing arts in its State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012 (link to full PDF report).

Hole in the strategy and final comments

Don Mattrick is well known locally as a BC technology success story and he was the Industry Chair for this summit. He is one of the province’s pioneers in the field of video games and, according to Premier Clark, he’d achieved enough financial success that by grade 11 (he was probably 16), he went out to buy a Ferrari for which he had the funds.  He was unsuccessful in his quest to purchase a Ferrari or his next quest to get a loan from the bank. Despite these setbacks, he did found one of the first video games companies in BC, which he later sold to Electronic Arts, a US games and entertainment giant.

In the early 1980s when Mattrick started out, he had very little support there wasn’t a video game industry n Canada. (Hard to believe now but games were leading/bleeding edge.) That lack of support for new, emerging fields can be seen even with this new #BCTECH strategy where Premier Clark announced very clearly that education in the new technology sectors had to be tied to jobs. Sensible but problematic. A ‘Don Mattrick’ type wouldn’t have had a job since the industry wasn’t yet established.

The truly groundbreaking, new technologies are highly disruptive and risky which Clark acknowledged and dismissed (she exhorted people not to give up) in her speech.

With an international race to ‘innovate’, all governments face the issues of disruption and risk taking. Bureaucracies are not designed to engage in those activities. To a large extent, they’ve been designed to control and minimize disruption and risk taking.

I’m sympathetic to the problem, I just wish the BC government had been more forthcoming about the issues and about the details of how they are going to implement this new strategy.

I’m also curious as to whether the government is interested in changing the ‘found a start-up company and sell to a corporate giant’ culture which reigns here in BC. That’s what Don Mattrick and a century or more’s worth of innovative BC entrepreneurs have done.

Finally, I gather Clark wants to commercialize our data further. She talked about opportunities to do that although no details were forthcoming nor was there any mention of privacy issues.

*’one’ added to sentence and ‘inititiative’ corrected to ‘initiative’ on June 14, 2017.

ETA June 14, 2017: Some months later, Premier Christy Clark announced $6M funding for teachers to learn how to teach coding and for computers in a June 10, 2016 news release from the Office of the Premier.