Tag Archives: Universite de Montreal

Artificial intelligence (AI) company (in Montréal, Canada) attracts $135M in funding from Microsoft, Intel, Nvidia and others

It seems there’s a push on to establish Canada as a centre for artificial intelligence research and, if the federal and provincial governments have their way, for commercialization of said research. As always, there seems to be a bit of competition between Toronto (Ontario) and Montréal (Québec) as to which will be the dominant hub for the Canadian effort if one is to take Braga’s word for the situation.

In any event, Toronto seemed to have a mild advantage over Montréal initially with the 2017 Canadian federal government  budget announcement that the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), based in Toronto, would launch a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy and with an announcement from the University of Toronto shortly after (from my March 31, 2017 posting),

On the heels of the March 22, 2017 federal budget announcement of $125M for a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, the University of Toronto (U of T) has announced the inception of the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence in a March 28, 2017 news release by Jennifer Robinson (Note: Links have been removed),

A team of globally renowned researchers at the University of Toronto is driving the planning of a new institute staking Toronto’s and Canada’s claim as the global leader in AI.

Geoffrey Hinton, a University Professor Emeritus in computer science at U of T and vice-president engineering fellow at Google, will serve as the chief scientific adviser of the newly created Vector Institute based in downtown Toronto.

“The University of Toronto has long been considered a global leader in artificial intelligence research,” said U of T President Meric Gertler. “It’s wonderful to see that expertise act as an anchor to bring together researchers, government and private sector actors through the Vector Institute, enabling them to aim even higher in leading advancements in this fast-growing, critical field.”

As part of the Government of Canada’s Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, Vector will share $125 million in federal funding with fellow institutes in Montreal and Edmonton. All three will conduct research and secure talent to cement Canada’s position as a world leader in AI.

However, Montréal and the province of Québec are no slouches when it comes to supporting to technology. From a June 14, 2017 article by Matthew Braga for CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news online (Note: Links have been removed),

One of the most promising new hubs for artificial intelligence research in Canada is going international, thanks to a $135 million investment with contributions from some of the biggest names in tech.

The company, Montreal-based Element AI, was founded last October [2016] to help companies that might not have much experience in artificial intelligence start using the technology to change the way they do business.

It’s equal parts general research lab and startup incubator, with employees working to develop new and improved techniques in artificial intelligence that might not be fully realized for years, while also commercializing products and services that can be sold to clients today.

It was co-founded by Yoshua Bengio — one of the pioneers of a type of AI research called machine learning — along with entrepreneurs Jean-François Gagné and Nicolas Chapados, and the Canadian venture capital fund Real Ventures.

In an interview, Bengio and Gagné said the money from the company’s funding round will be used to hire 250 new employees by next January. A hundred will be based in Montreal, but an additional 100 employees will be hired for a new office in Toronto, and the remaining 50 for an Element AI office in Asia — its first international outpost.

They will join more than 100 employees who work for Element AI today, having left jobs at Amazon, Uber and Google, among others, to work at the company’s headquarters in Montreal.

The expansion is a big vote of confidence in Element AI’s strategy from some of the world’s biggest technology companies. Microsoft, Intel and Nvidia all contributed to the round, and each is a key player in AI research and development.

The company has some not unexpected plans and partners (from the Braga, article, Note: A link has been removed),

The Series A round was led by Data Collective, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm, and included participation by Fidelity Investments Canada, National Bank of Canada, and Real Ventures.

What will it help the company do? Scale, its founders say.

“We’re looking at domain experts, artificial intelligence experts,” Gagné said. “We already have quite a few, but we’re looking at people that are at the top of their game in their domains.

“And at this point, it’s no longer just pure artificial intelligence, but people who understand, extremely well, robotics, industrial manufacturing, cybersecurity, and financial services in general, which are all the areas we’re going after.”

Gagné says that Element AI has already delivered 10 projects to clients in those areas, and have many more in development. In one case, Element AI has been helping a Japanese semiconductor company better analyze the data collected by the assembly robots on its factory floor, in a bid to reduce manufacturing errors and improve the quality of the company’s products.

There’s more to investment in Québec’s AI sector than Element AI (from the Braga article; Note: Links have been removed),

Element AI isn’t the only organization in Canada that investors are interested in.

In September, the Canadian government announced $213 million in funding for a handful of Montreal universities, while both Google and Microsoft announced expansions of their Montreal AI research groups in recent months alongside investments in local initiatives. The province of Quebec has pledged $100 million for AI initiatives by 2022.

Braga goes on to note some other initiatives but at that point the article’s focus is exclusively Toronto.

For more insight into the AI situation in Québec, there’s Dan Delmar’s May 23, 2017 article for the Montreal Express (Note: Links have been removed),

Advocating for massive government spending with little restraint admittedly deviates from the tenor of these columns, but the AI business is unlike any other before it. [emphasis misn] Having leaders acting as fervent advocates for the industry is crucial; resisting the coming technological tide is, as the Borg would say, futile.

The roughly 250 AI researchers who call Montreal home are not simply part of a niche industry. Quebec’s francophone character and Montreal’s multilingual citizenry are certainly factors favouring the development of language technology, but there’s ample opportunity for more ambitious endeavours with broader applications.

AI isn’t simply a technological breakthrough; it is the technological revolution. [emphasis mine] In the coming decades, modern computing will transform all industries, eliminating human inefficiencies and maximizing opportunities for innovation and growth — regardless of the ethical dilemmas that will inevitably arise.

“By 2020, we’ll have computers that are powerful enough to simulate the human brain,” said (in 2009) futurist Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near, a seminal 2006 book that has inspired a generation of AI technologists. Kurzweil’s projections are not science fiction but perhaps conservative, as some forms of AI already effectively replace many human cognitive functions. “By 2045, we’ll have expanded the intelligence of our human-machine civilization a billion-fold. That will be the singularity.”

The singularity concept, borrowed from physicists describing event horizons bordering matter-swallowing black holes in the cosmos, is the point of no return where human and machine intelligence will have completed their convergence. That’s when the machines “take over,” so to speak, and accelerate the development of civilization beyond traditional human understanding and capability.

The claims I’ve highlighted in Delmar’s article have been made before for other technologies, “xxx is like no other business before’ and “it is a technological revolution.”  Also if you keep scrolling down to the bottom of the article, you’ll find Delmar is a ‘public relations consultant’ which, if you look at his LinkedIn profile, you’ll find means he’s a managing partner in a PR firm known as Provocateur.

Bertrand Marotte’s May 20, 2017 article for the Montreal Gazette offers less hyperbole along with additional detail about the Montréal scene (Note: Links have been removed),

It might seem like an ambitious goal, but key players in Montreal’s rapidly growing artificial-intelligence sector are intent on transforming the city into a Silicon Valley of AI.

Certainly, the flurry of activity these days indicates that AI in the city is on a roll. Impressive amounts of cash have been flowing into academia, public-private partnerships, research labs and startups active in AI in the Montreal area.

…, researchers at Microsoft Corp. have successfully developed a computing system able to decipher conversational speech as accurately as humans do. The technology makes the same, or fewer, errors than professional transcribers and could be a huge boon to major users of transcription services like law firms and the courts.

Setting the goal of attaining the critical mass of a Silicon Valley is “a nice point of reference,” said tech entrepreneur Jean-François Gagné, co-founder and chief executive officer of Element AI, an artificial intelligence startup factory launched last year.

The idea is to create a “fluid, dynamic ecosystem” in Montreal where AI research, startup, investment and commercialization activities all mesh productively together, said Gagné, who founded Element with researcher Nicolas Chapados and Université de Montréal deep learning pioneer Yoshua Bengio.

“Artificial intelligence is seen now as a strategic asset to governments and to corporations. The fight for resources is global,” he said.

The rise of Montreal — and rival Toronto — as AI hubs owes a lot to provincial and federal government funding.

Ottawa promised $213 million last September to fund AI and big data research at four Montreal post-secondary institutions. Quebec has earmarked $100 million over the next five years for the development of an AI “super-cluster” in the Montreal region.

The provincial government also created a 12-member blue-chip committee to develop a strategic plan to make Quebec an AI hub, co-chaired by Claridge Investments Ltd. CEO Pierre Boivin and Université de Montréal rector Guy Breton.

But private-sector money has also been flowing in, particularly from some of the established tech giants competing in an intense AI race for innovative breakthroughs and the best brains in the business.

Montreal’s rich talent pool is a major reason Waterloo, Ont.-based language-recognition startup Maluuba decided to open a research lab in the city, said the company’s vice-president of product development, Mohamed Musbah.

“It’s been incredible so far. The work being done in this space is putting Montreal on a pedestal around the world,” he said.

Microsoft struck a deal this year to acquire Maluuba, which is working to crack one of the holy grails of deep learning: teaching machines to read like the human brain does. Among the company’s software developments are voice assistants for smartphones.

Maluuba has also partnered with an undisclosed auto manufacturer to develop speech recognition applications for vehicles. Voice recognition applied to cars can include such things as asking for a weather report or making remote requests for the vehicle to unlock itself.

Marotte’s Twitter profile describes him as a freelance writer, editor, and translator.

May/June 2017 scienceish events in Canada (mostly in Vancouver)

I have five* events for this posting

(1) Science and You (Montréal)

The latest iteration of the Science and You conference took place May 4 – 6, 2017 at McGill University (Montréal, Québec). That’s the sad news, the good news is that they have recorded and released the sessions onto YouTube. (This is the first time the conference has been held outside of Europe, in fact, it’s usually held in France.) Here’s why you might be interested (from the 2017 conference page),

The animator of the conference will be Véronique Morin:

Véronique Morin is science journalist and communicator, first president of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) and serves as judge for science communication awards. She worked for a science program on Quebec’s public TV network, CBCRadio-Canada, TVOntario, and as a freelancer is also a contributor to -among others-  The Canadian Medical Journal, University Affairs magazine, NewsDeeply, while pursuing documentary projects.

Let’s talk about S …

Holding the attention of an audience full of teenagers may seem impossible… particularly on topics that might be seen as boring, like sciences! Yet, it’s essential to demistify science in order to make it accessible, even appealing in the eyes of futur citizens.
How can we encourage young adults to ask themselves questions about the surrounding world, nature and science? How can we make them discover sciences with and without digital tools?

Find out tips and tricks used by our speakers Kristin Alford and Amanda Tyndall.

Kristin Alford
Dr Kristin Alford is a futurist and the inaugural Director of MOD., a futuristic museum of discovery at the University of South Australia. Her mind is presently occupied by the future of work and provoking young adults to ask questions about the role of science at the intersection of art and innovation.

Internet Website

Amanda Tyndall
Over 20 years of  science communication experience with organisations such as Café Scientifique, The Royal Institution of Great Britain (and Australia’s Science Exchange), the Science Museum in London and now with the Edinburgh International Science Festival. Particularly interested in engaging new audiences through linkages with the arts and digital/creative industries.

Internet Website

A troll in the room

Increasingly used by politicians, social media can reach thousand of people in few seconds. Relayed to infinity, the message seems truthful, but is it really? At a time of fake news and alternative facts, how can we, as a communicator or a journalist, take up the challenge of disinformation?
Discover the traps and tricks of disinformation in the age of digital technologies with our two fact-checking experts, Shawn Otto and Vanessa Schipani, who will offer concrete solutions to unravel the true from the false..

 

Shawn Otto
Shawn Otto was awarded the IEEE-USA (“I-Triple-E”) National Distinguished Public Service Award for his work elevating science in America’s national public dialogue. He is cofounder and producer of the US presidential science debates at ScienceDebate.org. He is also an award-winning screenwriter and novelist, best known for writing and co-producing the Academy Award-nominated movie House of Sand and Fog.

Vanessa Schipani
Vanessa is a science journalist at FactCheck.org, which monitors U.S. politicians’ claims for accuracy. Previously, she wrote for outlets in the U.S., Europe and Japan, covering topics from quantum mechanics to neuroscience. She has bachelor’s degrees in zoology and philosophy and a master’s in the history and philosophy of science.

At 20,000 clicks from the extreme

Sharing living from a space station, ship or submarine. The examples of social media use in extreme conditions are multiplying and the public is asking for more. How to use public tools to highlight practices and discoveries? How to manage the use of social networks of a large organisation? What pitfalls to avoid? What does this mean for citizens and researchers?
Find out with Phillipe Archambault and Leslie Elliott experts in extrem conditions.

Philippe Archambault

Professor Philippe Archambault is a marine ecologist at Laval University, the director of the Notre Golfe network and president of the 4th World Conference on Marine Biodiversity. His research on the influence of global changes on biodiversity and the functioning of ecosystems has led him to work in all four corners of our oceans from the Arctic to the Antarctic, through Papua New Guinea and the French Polynesia.

Website

Leslie Elliott

Leslie Elliott leads a team of communicators at Ocean Networks Canada in Victoria, British Columbia, home to Canada’s world-leading ocean observatories in the Pacific and Arctic Oceans. Audiences can join robots equipped with high definition cameras via #livedive to discover more about our ocean.

Website

Science is not a joke!

Science and humor are two disciplines that might seem incompatible … and yet, like the ig-Nobels, humour can prove to be an excellent way to communicate a scientific message. This, however, can prove to be quite challenging since one needs to ensure they employ the right tone and language to both captivate the audience while simultaneously communicating complex topics.

Patrick Baud and Brian Malow, both well-renowned scientific communicators, will give you with the tools you need to capture your audience and also convey a proper scientific message. You will be surprised how, even in Science, a good dose of humour can make you laugh and think.

Patrick Baud
Patrick Baud is a French author who was born on June 30, 1979, in Avignon. He has been sharing for many years his passion for tales of fantasy, and the marvels and curiosities of the world, through different media: radio, web, novels, comic strips, conferences, and videos. His YouTube channel “Axolot”, was created in 2013, and now has over 420,000 followers.

Internet Website
Youtube

Brian Malow
Brian Malow is Earth’s Premier Science Comedian (self-proclaimed).  Brian has made science videos for Time Magazine and contributed to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s radio show.  He worked in science communications at a museum, blogged for Scientific American, and trains scientists to be better communicators.

Internet Website
YouTube

I don’t think they’ve managed to get everything up on YouTube yet but the material I’ve found has been subtitled (into French or English, depending on which language the speaker used).

Here are the opening day’s talks on YouTube with English subtitles or French subtitles when appropriate. You can also find some abstracts for the panel presentations here. I was particularly in this panel (S3 – The Importance of Reaching Out to Adults in Scientific Culture), Note: I have searched out the French language descriptions for those unavailable in English,

Organized by Coeur des sciences, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM)
Animator: Valérie Borde, Freelance Science Journalist

Anouk Gingras, Musée de la civilisation, Québec
Text not available in English

[La science au Musée de la civilisation c’est :
• Une cinquantaine d’expositions et espaces découvertes
• Des thèmes d’actualité, liés à des enjeux sociaux, pour des exposition souvent destinées aux adultes
• Un potentiel de nouveaux publics en lien avec les autres thématiques présentes au Musée (souvent non scientifiques)
L’exposition Nanotechnologies : l’invisible révolution :
• Un thème d’actualité suscitant une réflexion
• Un sujet sensible menant à la création d’un parcours d’exposition polarisé : choix entre « oui » ou « non » au développement des nanotechnologies pour l’avenir
• L’utilisation de divers éléments pour rapprocher le sujet du visiteur

  • Les nanotechnologies dans la science-fiction
  • Les objets du quotidien contenant des nanoparticules
  • Les objets anciens qui utilisant les nanotechnologies
  • Divers microscopes retraçant l’histoire des nanotechnologies

• Une forme d’interaction suscitant la réflexion du visiteur via un objet sympatique : le canard  de plastique jaune, muni d’une puce RFID

  • Sept stations de consultation qui incitent le visiteur à se prononcer et à réfléchir sur des questions éthiques liées au développement des nanotechnologies
  • Une compilation des données en temps réel
  • Une livraison des résultats personnalisée
  • Une mesure des visiteurs dont l’opinion s’est modifiée à la suite de la visite de l’exposition

Résultats de fréquentation :
• Public de jeunes adultes rejoint (51%)
• Plus d’hommes que de femmes ont visité l’exposition
• Parcours avec canard: incite à la réflexion et augmente l’attention
• 3 visiteurs sur 4 prennent le canard; 92% font l’activité en entier]

Marie Lambert-Chan, Québec Science
Capting the attention of adult readership : challenging mission, possible mission
Since 1962, Québec Science Magazine is the only science magazine aimed at an adult readership in Québec. Our mission : covering topical subjects related to science and technology, as well as social issues from a scientific point of view. Each year, we print eight issues, with a circulation of 22,000 copies. Furthermore, the magazine has received several awards and accolades. In 2017, Québec Science Magazine was honored by the Canadian Magazine Awards/Grands Prix du Magazine and was named Best Magazine in Science, Business and Politics category.
Although we have maintained a solid reputation among scientists and the media industry, our magazine is still relatively unknown to the general public. Why is that ? How is it that, through all those years, we haven’t found the right angle to engage a broader readership ?
We are still searching for definitive answers, but here are our observations :
Speaking science to adults is much more challenging than it is with children, who can marvel endlessly at the smallest things. Unfortunately, adults lose this capacity to marvel and wonder for various reasons : they have specific interests, they failed high-school science, they don’t feel competent enough to understand scientific phenomena. How do we bring the wonder back ? This is our mission. Not impossible, and hopefully soon to be accomplished. One noticible example is the number of reknown scientists interviewed during the popular talk-show Tout le monde en parle, leading us to believe the general public may have an interest in science.
However, to accomplish our mission, we have to recount science. According to the Bulgarian writer and blogger Maria Popova, great science writing should explain, elucidate and enchant . To explain : to make the information clear and comprehensible. To elucidate : to reveal all the interconnections between the pieces of information. To enchant : to go beyond the scientific terms and information and tell a story, thus giving a kaleidoscopic vision of the subject. This is how we intend to capture our readership’s attention.
Our team aims to accomplish this challenge. Although, to be perfectly honest, it would be much easier if we had more resources, financial-wise or human-wise. However, we don’t lack ideas. We dream of major scientific investigations, conferences organized around themes from the magazine’s issues, Web documentaries, podcasts… Such initiatives would give us the visibility we desperately crave.
That said, even in the best conditions, would be have more subscribers ? Perhaps. But it isn’t assured. Even if our magazine is aimed at adult readership, we are convinced that childhood and science go hand in hand, and is even decisive for the children’s future. At the moment, school programs are not in place for continuous scientific development. It is possible to develop an interest for scientific culture as adults, but it is much easier to achieve this level of curiosity if it was previously fostered.

Robert Lamontagne, Université de Montréal
Since the beginning of my career as an astrophysicist, I have been interested in scientific communication to non-specialist audiences. I have presented hundreds of lectures describing the phenomena of the cosmos. Initially, these were mainly offered in amateur astronomers’ clubs or in high-schools and Cégeps. Over the last few years, I have migrated to more general adult audiences in the context of cultural activities such as the “Festival des Laurentides”, the Arts, Culture and Society activities in Repentigny and, the Université du troisième âge (UTA) or Senior’s University.
The Quebec branch of the UTA, sponsored by the Université de Sherbrooke (UdeS), exists since 1976. Seniors universities, created in Toulouse, France, are part of a worldwide movement. The UdeS and its senior’s university antennas are members of the International Association of the Universities of the Third Age (AIUTA). The UTA is made up of 28 antennas located in 10 regions and reaches more than 10,000 people per year. Antenna volunteers prepare educational programming by drawing on a catalog of courses, seminars and lectures, covering a diverse range of subjects ranging from history and politics to health, science, or the environment.
The UTA is aimed at people aged 50 and over who wish to continue their training and learn throughout their lives. It is an attentive, inquisitive, educated public and, given the demographics in Canada, its number is growing rapidly. This segment of the population is often well off and very involved in society.
I usually use a two-prong approach.
• While remaining rigorous, the content is articulated around a few ideas, avoiding analytical expressions in favor of a qualitative description.
• The narrative framework, the story, which allows to contextualize the scientific content and to forge links with the audience.

Sophie Malavoy, Coeur des sciences – UQAM

Many obstacles need to be overcome in order to reach out to adults, especially those who aren’t in principle interested in science.
• Competing against cultural activities such as theater, movies, etc.
• The idea that science is complex and dull
• A feeling of incompetence. « I’ve always been bad in math and physics»
• Funding shortfall for activities which target adults
How to reach out to those adults?
• To put science into perspective. To bring its relevance out by making links with current events and big issues (economic, heath, environment, politic). To promote a transdisciplinary approach which includes humanities and social sciences.
• To stake on originality by offering uncommon and ludic experiences (scientific walks in the city, street performances, etc.)
• To bridge between science and popular activities to the public (science/music; science/dance; science/theater; science/sports; science/gastronomy; science/literature)
• To reach people with emotions without sensationalism. To boost their curiosity and ability to wonder.
• To put a human face on science, by insisting not only on the results of a research but on its process. To share the adventure lived by researchers.
• To liven up people’s feeling of competence. To insist on the scientific method.
• To invite non-scientists (citizens groups, communities, consumers, etc.) to the reflections on science issues (debate, etc.).  To move from dissemination of science to dialog

Didier Pourquery, The Conversation France
Text not available in English

[Depuis son lancement en septembre 2015 la plateforme The Conversation France (2 millions de pages vues par mois) n’a cessé de faire progresser son audience. Selon une étude menée un an après le lancement, la structure de lectorat était la suivante
Pour accrocher les adultes et les ainés deux axes sont intéressants ; nous les utilisons autant sur notre site que sur notre newsletter quotidienne – 26.000 abonnés- ou notre page Facebook (11500 suiveurs):
1/ expliquer l’actualité : donner les clefs pour comprendre les débats scientifiques qui animent la société ; mettre de la science dans les discussions (la mission du site est de  « nourrir le débat citoyen avec de l’expertise universitaire et de la recherche »). L’idée est de poser des questions de compréhension simple au moment où elles apparaissent dans le débat (en période électorale par exemple : qu’est-ce que le populisme ? Expliqué par des chercheurs de Sciences Po incontestables.)
Exemples : comprendre les conférences climat -COP21, COP22 – ; comprendre les débats de société (Gestation pour autrui); comprendre l’économie (revenu universel); comprendre les maladies neurodégénératives (Alzheimer) etc.
2/ piquer la curiosité : utiliser les formules classiques (le saviez-vous ?) appliquées à des sujets surprenants (par exemple : «  Que voit un chien quand il regarde la télé ? » a eu 96.000 pages vues) ; puis jouer avec ces articles sur les réseaux sociaux. Poser des questions simples et surprenantes. Par exemple : ressemblez-vous à votre prénom ? Cet article académique très sérieux a comptabilisé 95.000 pages vues en français et 171.000 en anglais.
3/ Susciter l’engagement : faire de la science participative simple et utile. Par exemple : appeler nos lecteurs à surveiller l’invasion de moustiques tigres partout sur le territoire. Cet article a eu 112.000 pages vues et a été republié largement sur d’autres sites. Autre exemple : appeler les lecteurs à photographier les punaises de leur environnement.]

Here are my very brief and very rough translations. (1) Anouk Gingras is focused largely on a nanotechnology exhibit and whether or not visitors went through it and participated in various activities. She doesn’t seem specifically focused on science communication for adults but they are doing some very interesting and related work at Québec’s Museum of Civilization. (2) Didier Pourquery is describing an online initiative known as ‘The Conversation France’ (strange—why not La conversation France?). Moving on, there’s a website with a daily newsletter (blog?) and a Facebook page. They have two main projects, one is a discussion of current science issues in society, which is informed with and by experts but is not exclusive to experts, and more curiosity-based science questions and discussion such as What does a dog see when it watches television?

Serendipity! I hadn’t stumbled across this conference when I posted my May 12, 2017 piece on the ‘insanity’ of science outreach in Canada. It’s good to see I’m not the only one focused on science outreach for adults and that there is some action, although seems to be a Québec-only effort.

(2) Ingenious—a book launch in Vancouver

The book will be launched on Thursday, June 1, 2017 at the Vancouver Public Library’s Central Branch (from the Ingenious: An Evening of Canadian Innovation event page)

Ingenious: An Evening of Canadian Innovation
Thursday, June 1, 2017 (6:30 pm – 8:00 pm)
Central Branch
Description

Gov. Gen. David Johnston and OpenText Corp. chair Tom Jenkins discuss Canadian innovation and their book Ingenious: How Canadian Innovators Made the World Smarter, Smaller, Kinder, Safer, Healthier, Wealthier and Happier.

Books will be available for purchase and signing.

Doors open at 6 p.m.

INGENIOUS : HOW CANADIAN INNOVATORS MADE THE WORLD SMARTER, SMALLER, KINDER, SAFER, HEALTHIER, WEALTHIER, AND HAPPIER

Address:

350 West Georgia St.
VancouverV6B 6B1

Get Directions

  • Phone:

Location Details:

Alice MacKay Room, Lower Level

I do have a few more details about the authors and their book. First, there’s this from the Ottawa Writer’s Festival March 28, 2017 event page,

To celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday, Governor General David Johnston and Tom Jenkins have crafted a richly illustrated volume of brilliant Canadian innovations whose widespread adoption has made the world a better place. From Bovril to BlackBerrys, lightbulbs to liquid helium, peanut butter to Pablum, this is a surprising and incredibly varied collection to make Canadians proud, and to our unique entrepreneurial spirit.

Successful innovation is always inspired by at least one of three forces — insight, necessity, and simple luck. Ingenious moves through history to explore what circumstances, incidents, coincidences, and collaborations motivated each great Canadian idea, and what twist of fate then brought that idea into public acceptance. Above all, the book explores what goes on in the mind of an innovator, and maps the incredible spectrum of personalities that have struggled to improve the lot of their neighbours, their fellow citizens, and their species.

From the marvels of aboriginal invention such as the canoe, snowshoe, igloo, dogsled, lifejacket, and bunk bed to the latest pioneering advances in medicine, education, philanthropy, science, engineering, community development, business, the arts, and the media, Canadians have improvised and collaborated their way to international admiration. …

Then, there’s this April 5, 2017 item on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) news online,

From peanut butter to the electric wheelchair, the stories behind numerous life-changing Canadian innovations are detailed in a new book.

Gov. Gen. David Johnston and Tom Jenkins, chair of the National Research Council and former CEO of OpenText, are the authors of Ingenious: How Canadian Innovators Made the World Smarter, Smaller, Kinder, Safer, Healthier, Wealthier and Happier. The authors hope their book reinforces and extends the culture of innovation in Canada.

“We started wanting to tell 50 stories of Canadian innovators, and what has amazed Tom and myself is how many there are,” Johnston told The Homestretch on Wednesday. The duo ultimately chronicled 297 innovations in the book, including the pacemaker, life jacket and chocolate bars.

“Innovations are not just technological, not just business, but they’re social innovations as well,” Johnston said.

Many of those innovations, and the stories behind them, are not well known.

“We’re sort of a humble people,” Jenkins said. “We’re pretty quiet. We don’t brag, we don’t talk about ourselves very much, and so we then lead ourselves to believe as a culture that we’re not really good inventors, the Americans are. And yet we knew that Canadians were actually great inventors and innovators.”

‘Opportunities and challenges’

For Johnston, his favourite story in the book is on the light bulb.

“It’s such a symbol of both our opportunities and challenges,” he said. “The light bulb was invented in Canada, not the United States. It was two inventors back in the 1870s that realized that if you passed an electric current through a resistant metal it would glow, and they patented that, but then they didn’t have the money to commercialize it.”

American inventor Thomas Edison went on to purchase that patent and made changes to the original design.

Johnston and Jenkins are also inviting readers to share their own innovation stories, on the book’s website.

I’m looking forward to the talk and wondering if they’ve included the botox and cellulose nanocrystal (CNC) stories to the book. BTW, Tom Jenkins was the chair of a panel examining Canadian research and development and lead author of the panel’s report (Innovation Canada: A Call to Action) for the then Conservative government (it’s also known as the Jenkins report). You can find out more about in my Oct. 21, 2011 posting.

(3) Made in Canada (Vancouver)

This is either fortuitous or there’s some very high level planning involved in the ‘Made in Canada; Inspiring Creativity and Innovation’ show which runs from April 21 – Sept. 4, 2017 at Vancouver’s Science World (also known as the Telus World of Science). From the Made in Canada; Inspiring Creativity and Innovation exhibition page,

Celebrate Canadian creativity and innovation, with Science World’s original exhibition, Made in Canada, presented by YVR [Vancouver International Airport] — where you drive the creative process! Get hands-on and build the fastest bobsled, construct a stunning piece of Vancouver architecture and create your own Canadian sound mashup, to share with friends.

Vote for your favourite Canadian inventions and test fly a plane of your design. Discover famous (and not-so-famous, but super neat) Canadian inventions. Learn about amazing, local innovations like robots that teach themselves, one-person electric cars and a computer that uses parallel universes.

Imagine what you can create here, eh!!

You can find more information here.

One quick question, why would Vancouver International Airport be presenting this show? I asked that question of Science World’s Communications Coordinator, Jason Bosher, and received this response,

 YVR is the presenting sponsor. They donated money to the exhibition and they also contributed an exhibit for the “We Move” themed zone in the Made in Canada exhibition. The YVR exhibit details the history of the YVR airport, it’s geographic advantage and some of the planes they have seen there.

I also asked if there was any connection between this show and the ‘Ingenious’ book launch,

Some folks here are aware of the book launch. It has to do with the Canada 150 initiative and nothing to do with the Made in Canada exhibition, which was developed here at Science World. It is our own original exhibition.

So there you have it.

(4) Robotics, AI, and the future of work (Ottawa)

I’m glad to finally stumble across a Canadian event focusing on the topic of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and the future of work. Sadly (for me), this is taking place in Ottawa. Here are more details  from the May 25, 2017 notice (received via email) from the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC),

CSPC is Partnering with CIFAR {Canadian Institute for Advanced Research]
The Second Annual David Dodge Lecture

Join CIFAR and Senior Fellow Daron Acemoglu for
the Second Annual David Dodge CIFAR Lecture in Ottawa on June 13.
June 13, 2017 | 12 – 2 PM [emphasis mine]
Fairmont Château Laurier, Drawing Room | 1 Rideau St, Ottawa, ON
Along with the backlash against globalization and the outsourcing of jobs, concern is also growing about the effect that robotics and artificial intelligence will have on the labour force in advanced industrial nations. World-renowned economist Acemoglu, author of the best-selling book Why Nations Fail, will discuss how technology is changing the face of work and the composition of labour markets. Drawing on decades of data, Acemoglu explores the effects of widespread automation on manufacturing jobs, the changes we can expect from artificial intelligence technologies, and what responses to these changes might look like. This timely discussion will provide valuable insights for current and future leaders across government, civil society, and the private sector.

Daron Acemoglu is a Senior Fellow in CIFAR’s Insitutions, Organizations & Growth program, and the Elizabeth and James Killian Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Tickets: $15 (A light lunch will be served.)

You can find a registration link here. Also, if you’re interested in the Canadian efforts in the field of artificial intelligence you can find more in my March 24, 2017 posting (scroll down about 25% of the way and then about 40% of the way) on the 2017 Canadian federal budget and science where I first noted the $93.7M allocated to CIFAR for launching a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy.

(5) June 2017 edition of the Curiosity Collider Café (Vancouver)

This is an art/science (also known called art/sci and SciArt) that has taken place in Vancouver every few months since April 2015. Here’s more about the June 2017 edition (from the Curiosity Collider events page),

Collider Cafe

When
8:00pm on Wednesday, June 21st, 2017. Door opens at 7:30pm.

Where
Café Deux Soleils. 2096 Commercial Drive, Vancouver, BC (Google Map).

Cost
$5.00-10.00 cover at the door (sliding scale). Proceeds will be used to cover the cost of running this event, and to fund future Curiosity Collider events. Curiosity Collider is a registered BC non-profit organization.

***

#ColliderCafe is a space for artists, scientists, makers, and anyone interested in art+science. Meet, discover, connect, create. How do you explore curiosity in your life? Join us and discover how our speakers explore their own curiosity at the intersection of art & science.

The event will start promptly at 8pm (doors open at 7:30pm). $5.00-10.00 (sliding scale) cover at the door. Proceeds will be used to cover the cost of running this event, and to fund future Curiosity Collider events. Curiosity Collider is a registered BC non-profit organization.

Enjoy!

*I changed ‘three’ events to ‘five’ events and added a number to each event for greater reading ease on May 31, 2017.

Shooting drugs to an infection site with a slingshot

It seems as if I’ve been writing up nanomedicine research a lot lately, so I would have avoided this piece. However, since I do try to cover Canadian nanotechnology regardless of the topic and this work features researchers from l’Université de Montréal (Québec, Canada), here’s one of the latest innovations in the field of nanomedicine. (I have some additional comments about the nano scene in Canada and one major issue concerning nanomedicine at the end of this posting.) From a May 8, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

An international team of researchers from the University of Rome Tor Vergata and the University of Montreal has reported, in a paper published this week in Nature Communications, the design and synthesis of a nanoscale molecular slingshot made of DNA that is 20,000 times smaller than a human hair. This molecular slingshot could “shoot” and deliver drugs at precise locations in the human body once triggered by specific disease markers.

A May 8, 2017 University of Montreal news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the research (Note: A link has been removed),

The molecular slingshot is only a few nanometres long and is composed of a synthetic DNA strand that can load a drug and then effectively act as the rubber band of the slingshot. The two ends of this DNA “rubber band” contain two anchoring moieties that can specifically stick to a target antibody, a Y-shaped protein expressed by the body in response to different pathogens such as bacteria and viruses. When the anchoring moieties of the slingshot recognize and bind to the arms of the target antibody the DNA “rubber band” is stretched and the loaded drug is released.

“One impressive feature about this molecular slingshot,” says Francesco Ricci, Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, “is that it can only be triggered by the specific antibody recognizing the anchoring tags of the DNA ‘rubber band’. By simply changing these tags, one can thus program the slingshot to release a drug in response to a variety of specific antibodies. Since different antibodies are markers of different diseases, this could become a very specific weapon in the clinician’s hands.”

“Another great property of our slingshot,” adds Alexis Vallée-Bélisle, Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Montreal, “is its high versatility. For example, until now we have demonstrated the working principle of the slingshot using three different trigger antibodies, including an HIV antibody, and employing nucleic acids as model drugs. But thanks to the high programmability of DNA chemistry, one can now design the DNA slingshot to ‘shoot’ a wide range of threrapeutic molecules.”

“Designing this molecular slingshot was a great challenge,” says Simona Ranallo, a postdoctoral researcher in Ricci’s team and principal author of the new study. “It required a long series of experiments to find the optimal design, which keeps the drug loaded in ‘rubber band’ in the absence of the antibody, without affecting too much its shooting efficiency once the antibody triggers the slingshot.”

The group of researchers is now eager to adapt the slingshot for the delivery of clinically relevant drugs, and to demonstrate its clinical efficiency. [emphasis mine] “We envision that similar molecular slingshots may be used in the near future to deliver drugs to specific locations in the body. This would drastically improve the efficiency of drugs as well as decrease their toxic secondary effects,” concludes Ricci.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Antibody-powered nucleic acid release using a DNA-based nanomachine by Simona Ranallo, Carl Prévost-Tremblay, Andrea Idili, Alexis Vallée-Bélisle, & Francesco Ricci. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 15150 (2017) doi:10.1038/ncomms15150 Published online: 08 May 2017

This is an open access paper.

A couple of comments

The Canadian nanotechnology scene is pretty much centered in Alberta and Québec. The two provinces have invested a fair amount of money in their efforts. Despite the fact that the province of Alberta also hosts the federal government’s National Institute of Nanotechnology, it seems that the province of Québec is the one making the most progress in its various ‘nano’ fields of endeavour. Another province that should be mentioned with regard to its ‘nano’ efforts is Ontario. As far as I can tell, nanotechnology there doesn’t enjoy the same level of provincial funding support as the other two but there is some important work coming out of Ontario.

My other comment has to do with nanomedicine. While it is an exciting field, there is a tendency toward a certain hyperbole. For anyone who got excited about the ‘slingshot’, don’t forget this hasn’t been tested on any conditions close to the conditions found in a human body nor have they even used, “... clinically relevant drugs,  … .”  It’s also useful to know that less than 1% of the drugs used in nanoparticle-delivery systems make their way to the affected site (from an April 27, 2016 posting about research investigating the effectiveness of nanoparticle-based drug delivery systems). By the way, it was a researcher at the University of Toronto (Ontario, Canada) who first noted this phenomenon after a meta-analysis of the research,

More generally, the authors argue that, in order to increase nanoparticle delivery efficiency, a systematic and coordinated long-term strategy is necessary. To build a strong foundation for the field of cancer nanomedicine, researchers will need to understand a lot more about the interactions between nanoparticles and the body’s various organs than they do today. …

It’s not clear from the news release, the paper, or the May 8, 2017 article by Sherry Noik for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s News Online website, how this proposed solution would be administered but presumably the same factors which affect other nano-based drug deliveries could affect this new one,

Scientists have for many years been working on improving therapies like chemo and radiation on that score, but most efforts have focused on modifying the chemistry rather than altering the delivery of the drug.

“It’s all about tuning the concentration of the drug optimally in the body: high concentration where you want it to be active, and low concentration where you don’t want to affect other healthy parts,” says Prof. Alexis Vallée-Bélisle of the University of Montreal, co-author of the report published this week in Nature Communications.

“If you can increase the concentration of that drug at the specific location, that drug will be more efficient,” he told CBC News in an interview.

‘Like a weapon’

Restricting the movement of the drug also reduces potentially harmful secondary effects on other parts of the body — for instance, the hair loss that can result from toxic cancer treatments, or the loss of so-called good bacteria due to antibiotic use.

The idea of the slingshot is to home in on the target cells at a molecular level.

The two ends of the strand anchor themselves to the antibody, stretching the strand taut and catapulting the drug to its target.

“Imagine our slingshot like a weapon, and this weapon is being used by our own antibody,” said Vallée-Bélisle, who heads the Laboratory of Biosensors & Nanomachines at U of M. “We design a specific weapon targeting, for example, HIV. We provide the weapon in the body with the bullet — the drug. If the right solider is there, the soldier can use the weapon and shoot the problem.”

Equally important: if the wrong soldier is present, the weapon won’t be deployed.

So rather than delay treatment for an unidentified infection that could be either viral or bacterial, a patient could receive the medication for both and their body would only use the one it needed.

Getting back to my commentary, how does the drug get to its target? Through the bloodstream?  Does it get passed through various organs? How do we increase the amount of medication (in nano-based drug delivery systems) reaching affected areas from less than 1%?

The researchers deserve to be congratulated for this work and given much encouragement and thanks as they grapple with the questions I’ve posed and with all of the questions I don’t know how to ask.

Vector Institute and Canada’s artificial intelligence sector

On the heels of the March 22, 2017 federal budget announcement of $125M for a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, the University of Toronto (U of T) has announced the inception of the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence in a March 28, 2017 news release by Jennifer Robinson (Note: Links have been removed),

A team of globally renowned researchers at the University of Toronto is driving the planning of a new institute staking Toronto’s and Canada’s claim as the global leader in AI.

Geoffrey Hinton, a University Professor Emeritus in computer science at U of T and vice-president engineering fellow at Google, will serve as the chief scientific adviser of the newly created Vector Institute based in downtown Toronto.

“The University of Toronto has long been considered a global leader in artificial intelligence research,” said U of T President Meric Gertler. “It’s wonderful to see that expertise act as an anchor to bring together researchers, government and private sector actors through the Vector Institute, enabling them to aim even higher in leading advancements in this fast-growing, critical field.”

As part of the Government of Canada’s Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, Vector will share $125 million in federal funding with fellow institutes in Montreal and Edmonton. All three will conduct research and secure talent to cement Canada’s position as a world leader in AI.

In addition, Vector is expected to receive funding from the Province of Ontario and more than 30 top Canadian and global companies eager to tap this pool of talent to grow their businesses. The institute will also work closely with other Ontario universities with AI talent.

(See my March 24, 2017 posting; scroll down about 25% for the science part, including the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy of the budget.)

Not obvious in last week’s coverage of the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy is that the much lauded Hinton has been living in the US and working for Google. These latest announcements (Pan-Canadian AI Strategy and Vector Institute) mean that he’s moving back.

A March 28, 2017 article by Kate Allen for TorontoStar.com provides more details about the Vector Institute, Hinton, and the Canadian ‘brain drain’ as it applies to artificial intelligence, (Note:  A link has been removed)

Toronto will host a new institute devoted to artificial intelligence, a major gambit to bolster a field of research pioneered in Canada but consistently drained of talent by major U.S. technology companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft.

The Vector Institute, an independent non-profit affiliated with the University of Toronto, will hire about 25 new faculty and research scientists. It will be backed by more than $150 million in public and corporate funding in an unusual hybridization of pure research and business-minded commercial goals.

The province will spend $50 million over five years, while the federal government, which announced a $125-million Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy in last week’s budget, is providing at least $40 million, backers say. More than two dozen companies have committed millions more over 10 years, including $5 million each from sponsors including Google, Air Canada, Loblaws, and Canada’s five biggest banks [Bank of Montreal (BMO). Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce ({CIBC} President’s Choice Financial},  Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), Scotiabank (Tangerine), Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD Canada Trust)].

The mode of artificial intelligence that the Vector Institute will focus on, deep learning, has seen remarkable results in recent years, particularly in image and speech recognition. Geoffrey Hinton, considered the “godfather” of deep learning for the breakthroughs he made while a professor at U of T, has worked for Google since 2013 in California and Toronto.

Hinton will move back to Canada to lead a research team based at the tech giant’s Toronto offices and act as chief scientific adviser of the new institute.

Researchers trained in Canadian artificial intelligence labs fill the ranks of major technology companies, working on tools like instant language translation, facial recognition, and recommendation services. Academic institutions and startups in Toronto, Waterloo, Montreal and Edmonton boast leaders in the field, but other researchers have left for U.S. universities and corporate labs.

The goals of the Vector Institute are to retain, repatriate and attract AI talent, to create more trained experts, and to feed that expertise into existing Canadian companies and startups.

Hospitals are expected to be a major partner, since health care is an intriguing application for AI. Last month, researchers from Stanford University announced they had trained a deep learning algorithm to identify potentially cancerous skin lesions with accuracy comparable to human dermatologists. The Toronto company Deep Genomics is using deep learning to read genomes and identify mutations that may lead to disease, among other things.

Intelligent algorithms can also be applied to tasks that might seem less virtuous, like reading private data to better target advertising. Zemel [Richard Zemel, the institute’s research director and a professor of computer science at U of T] says the centre is creating an ethics working group [emphasis mine] and maintaining ties with organizations that promote fairness and transparency in machine learning. As for privacy concerns, “that’s something we are well aware of. We don’t have a well-formed policy yet but we will fairly soon.”

The institute’s annual funding pales in comparison to the revenues of the American tech giants, which are measured in tens of billions. The risk the institute’s backers are taking is simply creating an even more robust machine learning PhD mill for the U.S.

“They obviously won’t all stay in Canada, but Toronto industry is very keen to get them,” Hinton said. “I think Trump might help there.” Two researchers on Hinton’s new Toronto-based team are Iranian, one of the countries targeted by U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel bans.

Ethics do seem to be a bit of an afterthought. Presumably the Vector Institute’s ‘ethics working group’ won’t include any regular folks. Is there any thought to what the rest of us think about these developments? As there will also be some collaboration with other proposed AI institutes including ones at the University of Montreal (Université de Montréal) and the University of Alberta (Kate McGillivray’s article coming up shortly mentions them), might the ethics group be centered in either Edmonton or Montreal? Interestingly, two Canadians (Timothy Caulfield at the University of Alberta and Eric Racine at Université de Montréa) testified at the US Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues Feb. 10 – 11, 2014 meeting, the Brain research, ethics, and nanotechnology. Still speculating here but I imagine Caulfield and/or Racine could be persuaded to extend their expertise in ethics and the human brain to AI and its neural networks.

Getting back to the topic at hand the ‘AI sceneCanada’, Allen’s article is worth reading in its entirety if you have the time.

Kate McGillivray’s March 29, 2017 article for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) news online provides more details about the Canadian AI situation and the new strategies,

With artificial intelligence set to transform our world, a new institute is putting Toronto to the front of the line to lead the charge.

The Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, made possible by funding from the federal government revealed in the 2017 budget, will move into new digs in the MaRS Discovery District by the end of the year.

Vector’s funding comes partially from a $125 million investment announced in last Wednesday’s federal budget to launch a pan-Canadian artificial intelligence strategy, with similar institutes being established in Montreal and Edmonton.

“[A.I.] cuts across pretty well every sector of the economy,” said Dr. Alan Bernstein, CEO and president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, the organization tasked with administering the federal program.

“Silicon Valley and England and other places really jumped on it, so we kind of lost the lead a little bit. I think the Canadian federal government has now realized that,” he said.

Stopping up the brain drain

Critical to the strategy’s success is building a homegrown base of A.I. experts and innovators — a problem in the last decade, despite pioneering work on so-called “Deep Learning” by Canadian scholars such as Yoshua Bengio and Geoffrey Hinton, a former University of Toronto professor who will now serve as Vector’s chief scientific advisor.

With few university faculty positions in Canada and with many innovative companies headquartered elsewhere, it has been tough to keep the few graduates specializing in A.I. in town.

“We were paying to educate people and shipping them south,” explained Ed Clark, chair of the Vector Institute and business advisor to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.

The existence of that “fantastic science” will lean heavily on how much buy-in Vector and Canada’s other two A.I. centres get.

Toronto’s portion of the $125 million is a “great start,” said Bernstein, but taken alone, “it’s not enough money.”

“My estimate of the right amount of money to make a difference is a half a billion or so, and I think we will get there,” he said.

Jessica Murphy’s March 29, 2017 article for the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) news online offers some intriguing detail about the Canadian AI scene,

Canadian researchers have been behind some recent major breakthroughs in artificial intelligence. Now, the country is betting on becoming a big player in one of the hottest fields in technology, with help from the likes of Google and RBC [Royal Bank of Canada].

In an unassuming building on the University of Toronto’s downtown campus, Geoff Hinton laboured for years on the “lunatic fringe” of academia and artificial intelligence, pursuing research in an area of AI called neural networks.

Also known as “deep learning”, neural networks are computer programs that learn in similar way to human brains. The field showed early promise in the 1980s, but the tech sector turned its attention to other AI methods after that promise seemed slow to develop.

“The approaches that I thought were silly were in the ascendancy and the approach that I thought was the right approach was regarded as silly,” says the British-born [emphasis mine] professor, who splits his time between the university and Google, where he is a vice-president of engineering fellow.

Neural networks are used by the likes of Netflix to recommend what you should binge watch and smartphones with voice assistance tools. Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo AI used them to win against a human in the ancient game of Go in 2016.

Foteini Agrafioti, who heads up the new RBC Research in Machine Learning lab at the University of Toronto, said those recent innovations made AI attractive to researchers and the tech industry.

“Anything that’s powering Google’s engines right now is powered by deep learning,” she says.

Developments in the field helped jumpstart innovation and paved the way for the technology’s commercialisation. They also captured the attention of Google, IBM and Microsoft, and kicked off a hiring race in the field.

The renewed focus on neural networks has boosted the careers of early Canadian AI machine learning pioneers like Hinton, the University of Montreal’s Yoshua Bengio, and University of Alberta’s Richard Sutton.

Money from big tech is coming north, along with investments by domestic corporations like banking multinational RBC and auto parts giant Magna, and millions of dollars in government funding.

Former banking executive Ed Clark will head the institute, and says the goal is to make Toronto, which has the largest concentration of AI-related industries in Canada, one of the top five places in the world for AI innovation and business.

The founders also want it to serve as a magnet and retention tool for top talent aggressively head-hunted by US firms.

Clark says they want to “wake up” Canadian industry to the possibilities of AI, which is expected to have a massive impact on fields like healthcare, banking, manufacturing and transportation.

Google invested C$4.5m (US$3.4m/£2.7m) last November [2016] in the University of Montreal’s Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms.

Microsoft is funding a Montreal startup, Element AI. The Seattle-based company also announced it would acquire Montreal-based Maluuba and help fund AI research at the University of Montreal and McGill University.

Thomson Reuters and General Motors both recently moved AI labs to Toronto.

RBC is also investing in the future of AI in Canada, including opening a machine learning lab headed by Agrafioti, co-funding a program to bring global AI talent and entrepreneurs to Toronto, and collaborating with Sutton and the University of Alberta’s Machine Intelligence Institute.

Canadian tech also sees the travel uncertainty created by the Trump administration in the US as making Canada more attractive to foreign talent. (One of Clark’s the selling points is that Toronto as an “open and diverse” city).

This may reverse the ‘brain drain’ but it appears Canada’s role as a ‘branch plant economy’ for foreign (usually US) companies could become an important discussion once more. From the ‘Foreign ownership of companies of Canada’ Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Historically, foreign ownership was a political issue in Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when it was believed by some that U.S. investment had reached new heights (though its levels had actually remained stable for decades), and then in the 1980s, during debates over the Free Trade Agreement.

But the situation has changed, since in the interim period Canada itself became a major investor and owner of foreign corporations. Since the 1980s, Canada’s levels of investment and ownership in foreign companies have been larger than foreign investment and ownership in Canada. In some smaller countries, such as Montenegro, Canadian investment is sizable enough to make up a major portion of the economy. In Northern Ireland, for example, Canada is the largest foreign investor. By becoming foreign owners themselves, Canadians have become far less politically concerned about investment within Canada.

Of note is that Canada’s largest companies by value, and largest employers, tend to be foreign-owned in a way that is more typical of a developing nation than a G8 member. The best example is the automotive sector, one of Canada’s most important industries. It is dominated by American, German, and Japanese giants. Although this situation is not unique to Canada in the global context, it is unique among G-8 nations, and many other relatively small nations also have national automotive companies.

It’s interesting to note that sometimes Canadian companies are the big investors but that doesn’t change our basic position. And, as I’ve noted in other postings (including the March 24, 2017 posting), these government investments in science and technology won’t necessarily lead to a move away from our ‘branch plant economy’ towards an innovative Canada.

You can find out more about the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence here.

BTW, I noted that reference to Hinton as ‘British-born’ in the BBC article. He was educated in the UK and subsidized by UK taxpayers (from his Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

Hinton was educated at King’s College, Cambridge graduating in 1970, with a Bachelor of Arts in experimental psychology.[1] He continued his study at the University of Edinburgh where he was awarded a PhD in artificial intelligence in 1977 for research supervised by H. Christopher Longuet-Higgins.[3][12]

It seems Canadians are not the only ones to experience  ‘brain drains’.

Finally, I wrote at length about a recent initiative taking place between the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada) and the University of Washington (Seattle, Washington), the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative in a Feb. 28, 2017 posting noting that the initiative is being funded by Microsoft to the tune $1M and is part of a larger cooperative effort between the province of British Columbia and the state of Washington. Artificial intelligence is not the only area where US technology companies are hedging their bets (against Trump’s administration which seems determined to terrify people from crossing US borders) by investing in Canada.

For anyone interested in a little more information about AI in the US and China, there’s today’s (March 31, 2017)earlier posting: China, US, and the race for artificial intelligence research domination.

The Canadian science scene and the 2017 Canadian federal budget

There’s not much happening in the 2017-18 budget in terms of new spending according to Paul Wells’ March 22, 2017 article for TheStar.com,

This is the 22nd or 23rd federal budget I’ve covered. And I’ve never seen the like of the one Bill Morneau introduced on Wednesday [March 22, 2017].

Not even in the last days of the Harper Conservatives did a budget provide for so little new spending — $1.3 billion in the current budget year, total, in all fields of government. That’s a little less than half of one per cent of all federal program spending for this year.

But times are tight. The future is a place where we can dream. So the dollars flow more freely in later years. In 2021-22, the budget’s fifth planning year, new spending peaks at $8.2 billion. Which will be about 2.4 per cent of all program spending.

He’s not alone in this 2017 federal budget analysis; CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) pundits, Chantal Hébert, Andrew Coyne, and Jennifer Ditchburn said much the same during their ‘At Issue’ segment of the March 22, 2017 broadcast of The National (news).

Before I focus on the science and technology budget, here are some general highlights from the CBC’s March 22, 2017 article on the 2017-18 budget announcement (Note: Links have been removed,

Here are highlights from the 2017 federal budget:

  • Deficit: $28.5 billion, up from $25.4 billion projected in the fall.
  • Trend: Deficits gradually decline over next five years — but still at $18.8 billion in 2021-22.
  • Housing: $11.2 billion over 11 years, already budgeted, will go to a national housing strategy.
  • Child care: $7 billion over 10 years, already budgeted, for new spaces, starting 2018-19.
  • Indigenous: $3.4 billion in new money over five years for infrastructure, health and education.
  • Defence: $8.4 billion in capital spending for equipment pushed forward to 2035.
  • Care givers: New care-giving benefit up to 15 weeks, starting next year.
  • Skills: New agency to research and measure skills development, starting 2018-19.
  • Innovation: $950 million over five years to support business-led “superclusters.”
  • Startups: $400 million over three years for a new venture capital catalyst initiative.
  • AI: $125 million to launch a pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy.
  • Coding kids: $50 million over two years for initiatives to teach children to code.
  • Families: Option to extend parental leave up to 18 months.
  • Uber tax: GST to be collected on ride-sharing services.
  • Sin taxes: One cent more on a bottle of wine, five cents on 24 case of beer.
  • Bye-bye: No more Canada Savings Bonds.
  • Transit credit killed: 15 per cent non-refundable public transit tax credit phased out this year.

You can find the entire 2017-18 budget here.

Science and the 2017-18 budget

For anyone interested in the science news, you’ll find most of that in the 2017 budget’s Chapter 1 — Skills, Innovation and Middle Class jobs. As well, Wayne Kondro has written up a précis in his March 22, 2017 article for Science (magazine),

Finance officials, who speak on condition of anonymity during the budget lock-up, indicated the budgets of the granting councils, the main source of operational grants for university researchers, will be “static” until the government can assess recommendations that emerge from an expert panel formed in 2015 and headed by former University of Toronto President David Naylor to review basic science in Canada [highlighted in my June 15, 2016 posting ; $2M has been allocated for the advisor and associated secretariat]. Until then, the officials said, funding for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) will remain at roughly $848 million, whereas that for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) will remain at $773 million, and for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council [SSHRC] at $547 million.

NSERC, though, will receive $8.1 million over 5 years to administer a PromoScience Program that introduces youth, particularly unrepresented groups like Aboriginal people and women, to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics through measures like “space camps and conservation projects.” CIHR, meanwhile, could receive modest amounts from separate plans to identify climate change health risks and to reduce drug and substance abuse, the officials added.

… Canada’s Innovation and Skills Plan, would funnel $600 million over 5 years allocated in 2016, and $112.5 million slated for public transit and green infrastructure, to create Silicon Valley–like “super clusters,” which the budget defined as “dense areas of business activity that contain large and small companies, post-secondary institutions and specialized talent and infrastructure.” …

… The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research will receive $93.7 million [emphasis mine] to “launch a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy … (to) position Canada as a world-leading destination for companies seeking to invest in artificial intelligence and innovation.”

… Among more specific measures are vows to: Use $87.7 million in previous allocations to the Canada Research Chairs program to create 25 “Canada 150 Research Chairs” honoring the nation’s 150th year of existence, provide $1.5 million per year to support the operations of the office of the as-yet-unappointed national science adviser [see my Dec. 7, 2016 post for information about the job posting, which is now closed]; provide $165.7 million [emphasis mine] over 5 years for the nonprofit organization Mitacs to create roughly 6300 more co-op positions for university students and grads, and provide $60.7 million over five years for new Canadian Space Agency projects, particularly for Canadian participation in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s next Mars Orbiter Mission.

Kondros was either reading an earlier version of the budget or made an error regarding Mitacs (from the budget in the “A New, Ambitious Approach to Work-Integrated Learning” subsection),

Mitacs has set an ambitious goal of providing 10,000 work-integrated learning placements for Canadian post-secondary students and graduates each year—up from the current level of around 3,750 placements. Budget 2017 proposes to provide $221 million [emphasis mine] over five years, starting in 2017–18, to achieve this goal and provide relevant work experience to Canadian students.

As well, the budget item for the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy is $125M.

Moving from Kondros’ précis, the budget (in the “Positioning National Research Council Canada Within the Innovation and Skills Plan” subsection) announces support for these specific areas of science,

Stem Cell Research

The Stem Cell Network, established in 2001, is a national not-for-profit organization that helps translate stem cell research into clinical applications, commercial products and public policy. Its research holds great promise, offering the potential for new therapies and medical treatments for respiratory and heart diseases, cancer, diabetes, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, auto-immune disorders and Parkinson’s disease. To support this important work, Budget 2017 proposes to provide the Stem Cell Network with renewed funding of $6 million in 2018–19.

Space Exploration

Canada has a long and proud history as a space-faring nation. As our international partners prepare to chart new missions, Budget 2017 proposes investments that will underscore Canada’s commitment to innovation and leadership in space. Budget 2017 proposes to provide $80.9 million on a cash basis over five years, starting in 2017–18, for new projects through the Canadian Space Agency that will demonstrate and utilize Canadian innovations in space, including in the field of quantum technology as well as for Mars surface observation. The latter project will enable Canada to join the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) next Mars Orbiter Mission.

Quantum Information

The development of new quantum technologies has the potential to transform markets, create new industries and produce leading-edge jobs. The Institute for Quantum Computing is a world-leading Canadian research facility that furthers our understanding of these innovative technologies. Budget 2017 proposes to provide the Institute with renewed funding of $10 million over two years, starting in 2017–18.

Social Innovation

Through community-college partnerships, the Community and College Social Innovation Fund fosters positive social outcomes, such as the integration of vulnerable populations into Canadian communities. Following the success of this pilot program, Budget 2017 proposes to invest $10 million over two years, starting in 2017–18, to continue this work.

International Research Collaborations

The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) connects Canadian researchers with collaborative research networks led by eminent Canadian and international researchers on topics that touch all humanity. Past collaborations facilitated by CIFAR are credited with fostering Canada’s leadership in artificial intelligence and deep learning. Budget 2017 proposes to provide renewed and enhanced funding of $35 million over five years, starting in 2017–18.

Earlier this week, I highlighted Canada’s strength in the field of regenerative medicine, specifically stem cells in a March 21, 2017 posting. The $6M in the current budget doesn’t look like increased funding but rather a one-year extension. I’m sure they’re happy to receive it  but I imagine it’s a little hard to plan major research projects when you’re not sure how long your funding will last.

As for Canadian leadership in artificial intelligence, that was news to me. Here’s more from the budget,

Canada a Pioneer in Deep Learning in Machines and Brains

CIFAR’s Learning in Machines & Brains program has shaken up the field of artificial intelligence by pioneering a technique called “deep learning,” a computer technique inspired by the human brain and neural networks, which is now routinely used by the likes of Google and Facebook. The program brings together computer scientists, biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists and others, and the result is rich collaborations that have propelled artificial intelligence research forward. The program is co-directed by one of Canada’s foremost experts in artificial intelligence, the Université de Montréal’s Yoshua Bengio, and for his many contributions to the program, the University of Toronto’s Geoffrey Hinton, another Canadian leader in this field, was awarded the title of Distinguished Fellow by CIFAR in 2014.

Meanwhile, from chapter 1 of the budget in the subsection titled “Preparing for the Digital Economy,” there is this provision for children,

Providing educational opportunities for digital skills development to Canadian girls and boys—from kindergarten to grade 12—will give them the head start they need to find and keep good, well-paying, in-demand jobs. To help provide coding and digital skills education to more young Canadians, the Government intends to launch a competitive process through which digital skills training organizations can apply for funding. Budget 2017 proposes to provide $50 million over two years, starting in 2017–18, to support these teaching initiatives.

I wonder if BC Premier Christy Clark is heaving a sigh of relief. At the 2016 #BCTECH Summit, she announced that students in BC would learn to code at school and in newly enhanced coding camp programmes (see my Jan. 19, 2016 posting). Interestingly, there was no mention of additional funding to support her initiative. I guess this money from the federal government comes at a good time as we will have a provincial election later this spring where she can announce the initiative again and, this time, mention there’s money for it.

Attracting brains from afar

Ivan Semeniuk in his March 23, 2017 article (for the Globe and Mail) reads between the lines to analyze the budget’s possible impact on Canadian science,

But a between-the-lines reading of the budget document suggests the government also has another audience in mind: uneasy scientists from the United States and Britain.

The federal government showed its hand at the 2017 #BCTECH Summit. From a March 16, 2017 article by Meera Bains for the CBC news online,

At the B.C. tech summit, Navdeep Bains, Canada’s minister of innovation, said the government will act quickly to fast track work permits to attract highly skilled talent from other countries.

“We’re taking the processing time, which takes months, and reducing it to two weeks for immigration processing for individuals [who] need to come here to help companies grow and scale up,” Bains said.

“So this is a big deal. It’s a game changer.”

That change will happen through the Global Talent Stream, a new program under the federal government’s temporary foreign worker program.  It’s scheduled to begin on June 12, 2017.

U.S. companies are taking notice and a Canadian firm, True North, is offering to help them set up shop.

“What we suggest is that they think about moving their operations, or at least a chunk of their operations, to Vancouver, set up a Canadian subsidiary,” said the company’s founder, Michael Tippett.

“And that subsidiary would be able to house and accommodate those employees.”

Industry experts says while the future is unclear for the tech sector in the U.S., it’s clear high tech in B.C. is gearing up to take advantage.

US business attempts to take advantage of Canada’s relative stability and openness to immigration would seem to be the motive for at least one cross border initiative, the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative. From my Feb. 28, 2017 posting,

There was some big news about the smallest version of the Cascadia region on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 when the University of British Columbia (UBC) , the University of Washington (state; UW), and Microsoft announced the launch of the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative. From the joint Feb. 23, 2017 news release (read on the UBC website or read on the UW website),

In an expansion of regional cooperation, the University of British Columbia and the University of Washington today announced the establishment of the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative to use data to help cities and communities address challenges from traffic to homelessness. The largest industry-funded research partnership between UBC and the UW, the collaborative will bring faculty, students and community stakeholders together to solve problems, and is made possible thanks to a $1-million gift from Microsoft.

Today’s announcement follows last September’s [2016] Emerging Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference in Vancouver, B.C. The forum brought together regional leaders for the first time to identify concrete opportunities for partnerships in education, transportation, university research, human capital and other areas.

A Boston Consulting Group study unveiled at the conference showed the region between Seattle and Vancouver has “high potential to cultivate an innovation corridor” that competes on an international scale, but only if regional leaders work together. The study says that could be possible through sustained collaboration aided by an educated and skilled workforce, a vibrant network of research universities and a dynamic policy environment.

It gets better, it seems Microsoft has been positioning itself for a while if Matt Day’s analysis is correct (from my Feb. 28, 2017 posting),

Matt Day in a Feb. 23, 2017 article for the The Seattle Times provides additional perspective (Note: Links have been removed),

Microsoft’s effort to nudge Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., a bit closer together got an endorsement Thursday [Feb. 23, 2017] from the leading university in each city.

The partnership has its roots in a September [2016] conference in Vancouver organized by Microsoft’s public affairs and lobbying unit [emphasis mine.] That gathering was aimed at tying business, government and educational institutions in Microsoft’s home region in the Seattle area closer to its Canadian neighbor.

Microsoft last year [2016] opened an expanded office in downtown Vancouver with space for 750 employees, an outpost partly designed to draw to the Northwest more engineers than the company can get through the U.S. guest worker system [emphasis mine].

This was all prior to President Trump’s legislative moves in the US, which have at least one Canadian observer a little more gleeful than I’m comfortable with. From a March 21, 2017 article by Susan Lum  for CBC News online,

U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to limit travel into his country while simultaneously cutting money from science-based programs provides an opportunity for Canada’s science sector, says a leading Canadian researcher.

“This is Canada’s moment. I think it’s a time we should be bold,” said Alan Bernstein, president of CIFAR [which on March 22, 2017 was awarded $125M to launch the Pan Canada Artificial Intelligence Strategy in the Canadian federal budget announcement], a global research network that funds hundreds of scientists in 16 countries.

Bernstein believes there are many reasons why Canada has become increasingly attractive to scientists around the world, including the political climate in the United States and the Trump administration’s travel bans.

Thankfully, Bernstein calms down a bit,

“It used to be if you were a bright young person anywhere in the world, you would want to go to Harvard or Berkeley or Stanford, or what have you. Now I think you should give pause to that,” he said. “We have pretty good universities here [emphasis mine]. We speak English. We’re a welcoming society for immigrants.”​

Bernstein cautions that Canada should not be seen to be poaching scientists from the United States — but there is an opportunity.

“It’s as if we’ve been in a choir of an opera in the back of the stage and all of a sudden the stars all left the stage. And the audience is expecting us to sing an aria. So we should sing,” Bernstein said.

Bernstein said the federal government, with this week’s so-called innovation budget, can help Canada hit the right notes.

“Innovation is built on fundamental science, so I’m looking to see if the government is willing to support, in a big way, fundamental science in the country.”

Pretty good universities, eh? Thank you, Dr. Bernstein, for keeping some of the boosterism in check. Let’s leave the chest thumping to President Trump and his cronies.

Ivan Semeniuk’s March 23, 2017 article (for the Globe and Mail) provides more details about the situation in the US and in Britain,

Last week, Donald Trump’s first budget request made clear the U.S. President would significantly reduce or entirely eliminate research funding in areas such as climate science and renewable energy if permitted by Congress. Even the National Institutes of Health, which spearheads medical research in the United States and is historically supported across party lines, was unexpectedly targeted for a $6-billion (U.S.) cut that the White House said could be achieved through “efficiencies.”

In Britain, a recent survey found that 42 per cent of academics were considering leaving the country over worries about a less welcoming environment and the loss of research money that a split with the European Union is expected to bring.

In contrast, Canada’s upbeat language about science in the budget makes a not-so-subtle pitch for diversity and talent from abroad, including $117.6-million to establish 25 research chairs with the aim of attracting “top-tier international scholars.”

For good measure, the budget also includes funding for science promotion and $2-million annually for Canada’s yet-to-be-hired Chief Science Advisor, whose duties will include ensuring that government researchers can speak freely about their work.

“What we’ve been hearing over the last few months is that Canada is seen as a beacon, for its openness and for its commitment to science,” said Ms. Duncan [Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science], who did not refer directly to either the United States or Britain in her comments.

Providing a less optimistic note, Erica Alini in her March 22, 2017 online article for Global News mentions a perennial problem, the Canadian brain drain,

The budget includes a slew of proposed reforms and boosted funding for existing training programs, as well as new skills-development resources for unemployed and underemployed Canadians not covered under current EI-funded programs.

There are initiatives to help women and indigenous people get degrees or training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the so-called STEM subjects) and even to teach kids as young as kindergarten-age to code.

But there was no mention of how to make sure Canadians with the right skills remain in Canada, TD’s DePratto {Toronto Dominion Bank} Economics; TD is currently experiencing a scandal {March 13, 2017 Huffington Post news item}] told Global News.

Canada ranks in the middle of the pack compared to other advanced economies when it comes to its share of its graduates in STEM fields, but the U.S. doesn’t shine either, said DePratto [Brian DePratto, senior economist at TD .

The key difference between Canada and the U.S. is the ability to retain domestic talent and attract brains from all over the world, he noted.

To be blunt, there may be some opportunities for Canadian science but it does well to remember (a) US businesses have no particular loyalty to Canada and (b) all it takes is an election to change any perceived advantages to disadvantages.

Digital policy and intellectual property issues

Dubbed by some as the ‘innovation’ budget (official title:  Building a Strong Middle Class), there is an attempt to address a longstanding innovation issue (from a March 22, 2017 posting by Michael Geist on his eponymous blog (Note: Links have been removed),

The release of today’s [march 22, 2017] federal budget is expected to include a significant emphasis on innovation, with the government revealing how it plans to spend (or re-allocate) hundreds of millions of dollars that is intended to support innovation. Canada’s dismal innovation record needs attention, but spending our way to a more innovative economy is unlikely to yield the desired results. While Navdeep Bains, the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister, has talked for months about the importance of innovation, Toronto Star columnist Paul Wells today delivers a cutting but accurate assessment of those efforts:

“This government is the first with a minister for innovation! He’s Navdeep Bains. He frequently posts photos of his meetings on Twitter, with the hashtag “#innovation.” That’s how you know there is innovation going on. A year and a half after he became the minister for #innovation, it’s not clear what Bains’s plans are. It’s pretty clear that within the government he has less than complete control over #innovation. There’s an advisory council on economic growth, chaired by the McKinsey guru Dominic Barton, which periodically reports to the government urging more #innovation.

There’s a science advisory panel, chaired by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, that delivered a report to Science Minister Kirsty Duncan more than three months ago. That report has vanished. One presumes that’s because it offered some advice. Whatever Bains proposes, it will have company.”

Wells is right. Bains has been very visible with plenty of meetings and public photo shoots but no obvious innovation policy direction. This represents a missed opportunity since Bains has plenty of policy tools at his disposal that could advance Canada’s innovation framework without focusing on government spending.

For example, Canada’s communications system – wireless and broadband Internet access – falls directly within his portfolio and is crucial for both business and consumers. Yet Bains has been largely missing in action on the file. He gave approval for the Bell – MTS merger that virtually everyone concedes will increase prices in the province and make the communications market less competitive. There are potential policy measures that could bring new competitors into the market (MVNOs [mobile virtual network operators] and municipal broadband) and that could make it easier for consumers to switch providers (ban on unlocking devices). Some of this falls to the CRTC, but government direction and emphasis would make a difference.

Even more troubling has been his near total invisibility on issues relating to new fees or taxes on Internet access and digital services. Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly has taken control of the issue with the possibility that Canadians could face increased costs for their Internet access or digital services through mandatory fees to contribute to Canadian content.  Leaving aside the policy objections to such an approach (reducing affordable access and the fact that foreign sources now contribute more toward Canadian English language TV production than Canadian broadcasters and distributors), Internet access and e-commerce are supposed to be Bains’ issue and they have a direct connection to the innovation file. How is it possible for the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister to have remained silent for months on the issue?

Bains has been largely missing on trade related innovation issues as well. My Globe and Mail column today focuses on a digital-era NAFTA, pointing to likely U.S. demands on data localization, data transfers, e-commerce rules, and net neutrality.  These are all issues that fall under Bains’ portfolio and will impact investment in Canadian networks and digital services. There are innovation opportunities for Canada here, but Bains has been content to leave the policy issues to others, who will be willing to sacrifice potential gains in those areas.

Intellectual property policy is yet another area that falls directly under Bains’ mandate with an obvious link to innovation, but he has done little on the file. Canada won a huge NAFTA victory late last week involving the Canadian patent system, which was challenged by pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. Why has Bains not promoted the decision as an affirmation of how Canada’s intellectual property rules?

On the copyright front, the government is scheduled to conduct a review of the Copyright Act later this year, but it is not clear whether Bains will take the lead or again cede responsibility to Joly. The Copyright Act is statutorily under the Industry Minister and reform offers the chance to kickstart innovation. …

For anyone who’s not familiar with this area, innovation is often code for commercialization of science and technology research efforts. These days, digital service and access policies and intellectual property policies are all key to research and innovation efforts.

The country that’s most often (except in mainstream Canadian news media) held up as an example of leadership in innovation is Estonia. The Economist profiled the country in a July 31, 2013 article and a July 7, 2016 article on apolitical.co provides and update.

Conclusions

Science monies for the tri-council science funding agencies (NSERC, SSHRC, and CIHR) are more or less flat but there were a number of line items in the federal budget which qualify as science funding. The $221M over five years for Mitacs, the $125M for the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, additional funding for the Canada research chairs, and some of the digital funding could also be included as part of the overall haul. This is in line with the former government’s (Stephen Harper’s Conservatives) penchant for keeping the tri-council’s budgets under control while spreading largesse elsewhere (notably the Perimeter Institute, TRIUMF [Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics], and, in the 2015 budget, $243.5-million towards the Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) — a massive astronomical observatory to be constructed on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, a $1.5-billion project). This has lead to some hard feelings in the past with regard to ‘big science’ projects getting what some have felt is an undeserved boost in finances while the ‘small fish’ are left scrabbling for the ever-diminishing (due to budget cuts in years past and inflation) pittances available from the tri-council agencies.

Mitacs, which started life as a federally funded Network Centre for Excellence focused on mathematics, has since shifted focus to become an innovation ‘champion’. You can find Mitacs here and you can find the organization’s March 2016 budget submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance here. At the time, they did not request a specific amount of money; they just asked for more.

The amount Mitacs expects to receive this year is over $40M which represents more than double what they received from the federal government and almost of 1/2 of their total income in the 2015-16 fiscal year according to their 2015-16 annual report (see p. 327 for the Mitacs Statement of Operations to March 31, 2016). In fact, the federal government forked over $39,900,189. in the 2015-16 fiscal year to be their largest supporter while Mitacs’ total income (receipts) was $81,993,390.

It’s a strange thing but too much money, etc. can be as bad as too little. I wish the folks Mitacs nothing but good luck with their windfall.

I don’t see anything in the budget that encourages innovation and investment from the industrial sector in Canada.

Finallyl, innovation is a cultural issue as much as it is a financial issue and having worked with a number of developers and start-up companies, the most popular business model is to develop a successful business that will be acquired by a large enterprise thereby allowing the entrepreneurs to retire before the age of 30 (or 40 at the latest). I don’t see anything from the government acknowledging the problem let alone any attempts to tackle it.

All in all, it was a decent budget with nothing in it to seriously offend anyone.

Graphene Canada and its second annual conference

An Aug. 31, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now announces Canada’s second graphene-themed conference,

The 2nd edition of Graphene & 2D Materials Canada 2016 International Conference & Exhibition (www.graphenecanadaconf.com) will take place in Montreal (Canada): 18-20 October, 2016.

– An industrial forum with focus on Graphene Commercialization (Abalonyx, Alcereco Inc, AMO GmbH, Avanzare, AzTrong Inc, Bosch GmbH, China Innovation Alliance of the Graphene Industry (CGIA), Durham University & Applied Graphene Materials, Fujitsu Laboratories Ltd., Hanwha Techwin, Haydale, IDTechEx, North Carolina Central University & Chaowei Power Ltd, NTNU&CrayoNano, Phantoms Foundation, Southeast University, The Graphene Council, University of Siegen, University of Sunderland and University of Waterloo)
– Extensive thematic workshops in parallel (Materials & Devices Characterization, Chemistry, Biosensors & Energy and Electronic Devices)
– A significant exhibition (Abalonyx, Go Foundation, Grafoid, Group NanoXplore Inc., Raymor | Nanointegris and Suragus GmbH)

As I noted in my 2015 post about Graphene Canada and its conference, the group is organized in a rather interesting fashion and I see the tradition continues, i.e., the lead organizers seem to be situated in countries other than Canada. From the Aug. 31, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

Organisers: Phantoms Foundation [located in Spain] www.phantomsnet.net
Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology – ICN2 (Spain) | CEMES/CNRS (France) | GO Foundation (Canada) | Grafoid Inc (Canada) | Graphene Labs – IIT (Italy) | McGill University (Canada) | Texas Instruments (USA) | Université Catholique de Louvain (Belgium) | Université de Montreal (Canada)

You can find the conference website here.

Very precise nanorobots redefine the administration of anti-cancer drugs

A very exuberant announcement has been made about cancer drug delivery by precise nanorobots, which have been tested in mice, in an Aug. 15, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Researchers from Polytechnique Montréal, Université de Montréal and McGill University have just achieved a spectacular breakthrough in cancer research. They have developed new nanorobotic agents capable of navigating through the bloodstream to administer a drug with precision by specifically targeting the active cancerous cells of tumours. This way of injecting medication ensures the optimal targeting of a tumour and avoids jeopardizing the integrity of organs and surrounding healthy tissues. As a result, the drug dosage that is highly toxic for the human organism could be significantly reduced.

This scientific breakthrough has just been published in the prestigious journal Nature Nanotechnology in an article titled “Magneto-aerotactic bacteria deliver drug-containing nanoliposomes to tumour hypoxic regions.” The article notes the results of the research done on mice, which were successfully administered nanorobotic agents into colorectal tumours.

An Aug. 15, 2016 Polytechnique Montréal news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the work and the nanorobots or nanorobotic agents (bacteria) in more detail,

“These legions of nanorobotic agents were actually composed of more than 100 million flagellated bacteria – and therefore self-propelled – and loaded with drugs that moved by taking the most direct path between the drug’s injection point and the area of the body to cure,” explains Professor Sylvain Martel, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Medical Nanorobotics and Director of the Polytechnique Montréal Nanorobotics Laboratory, who heads the research team’s work. “The drug’s propelling force was enough to travel efficiently and enter deep inside the tumours.”

When they enter a tumour, the nanorobotic agents can detect in a wholly autonomous fashion the oxygen-depleted tumour areas, known as hypoxic zones, and deliver the drug to them. This hypoxic zone is created by the substantial consumption of oxygen by rapidly proliferative tumour cells. Hypoxic zones are known to be resistant to most therapies, including radiotherapy.

But gaining access to tumours by taking paths as minute as a red blood cell and crossing complex physiological micro-environments does not come without challenges. So Professor Martel and his team used nanotechnology to do it.

Bacteria with compass

To move around, bacteria used by Professor Martel’s team rely on two natural systems. A kind of compass created by the synthesis of a chain of magnetic nanoparticles allows them to move in the direction of a magnetic field, while a sensor measuring oxygen concentration enables them to reach and remain in the tumour’s active regions. By harnessing these two transportation systems and by exposing the bacteria to a computer-controlled magnetic field, researchers showed that these bacteria could perfectly replicate artificial nanorobots of the future designed for this kind of task.

“This innovative use of nanotransporters will have an impact not only on creating more advanced engineering concepts and original intervention methods, but it also throws the door wide open to the synthesis of new vehicles for therapeutic, imaging and diagnostic agents,” Professor Martel adds. “Chemotherapy, which is so toxic for the entire human body, could make use of these natural nanorobots to move drugs directly to the targeted area, eliminating the harmful side effects while also boosting its therapeutic effectiveness.”

This news contrasts somewhat with research at the University of Toronto (my April 27, 2016 posting) investigating how many drug-carrying nanoparticles find the cancer tumours they are intended for. The answer was that less than 1% make their way to the tumour and the conclusion those scientists reached was that we don’t know enough about how materials are delivered to the cells. My question, are the bacteria/nanorobots better at finding the tumours/cells? It’s not clear from the news release.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Magneto-aerotactic bacteria deliver drug-containing nanoliposomes to tumour hypoxic regions by Ouajdi Felfoul, Mahmood Mohammadi, Samira Taherkhani, Dominic de Lanauze, Yong Zhong Xu, Dumitru Loghin, Sherief Essa, Sylwia Jancik, Daniel Houle, Michel Lafleur, Louis Gaboury, Maryam Tabrizian, Neila Kaou, Michael Atkin, Té Vuong, Gerald Batist, Nicole Beauchemin, Danuta Radzioch, & Sylvain Martel. Nature Nanotechnology (2016)  doi:10.1038/nnano.2016.137 Published online 15 August 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Taking DNA beyond genetics with living computers and nanobots

You might want to keep a salt shaker with you while reading a June 7, 2016 essay by Matteo Palma (Queen Mary’s University of London) about nanotechnology and DNA on The Conversation website (h/t June 7, 2016 news item on Nanowerk).

This is not a ‘hype’ piece as Palma backs every claim with links to the research while providing a good overview of some very exciting work but the mood is a bit euphoric so you may want to keep the earlier mentioned salt shaker nearby.

Palma offers a very nice beginner introduction especially helpful for someone who only half-remembers their high school biology (from the June 7, 2016 essay)

DNA is one of the most amazing molecules in nature, providing a way to carry the instructions needed to create almost any lifeform on Earth in a microscopic package. Now scientists are finding ways to push DNA even further, using it not just to store information but to create physical components in a range of biological machines.

Deoxyribonucleic acid or “DNA” carries the genetic information that we, and all living organisms, use to function. It typically comes in the form of the famous double-helix shape, made up of two single-stranded DNA molecules folded into a spiral. Each of these is made up of a series of four different types of molecular component: adenine (A), guanine (G), thymine (T), and cytosine (C).

Genes are made up from different sequences of these building block components, and the order in which they appear in a strand of DNA is what encodes genetic information. But by precisely designing different A,G,T and C sequences, scientists have recently been able to develop new ways of folding DNA into different origami shapes, beyond the conventional double helix.

This approach has opened up new possibilities of using DNA beyond its genetic and biological purpose, turning it into a Lego-like material for building objects that are just a few billionths of a metre in diameter (nanoscale). DNA-based materials are now being used for a variety of applications, ranging from templates for electronic nano-devices, to ways of precisely carrying drugs to diseased cells.

He highlights some Canadian work,

Designing electronic devices that are just nanometres in size opens up all sorts of possible applications but makes it harder to spot defects. As a way of dealing with this, researchers at the University of Montreal have used DNA to create ultrasensitive nanoscale thermometers that could help find minuscule hotspots in nanodevices (which would indicate a defect). They could also be used to monitor the temperature inside living cells.

The nanothermometers are made using loops of DNA that act as switches, folding or unfolding in response to temperature changes. This movement can be detected by attaching optical probes to the DNA. The researchers now want to build these nanothermometers into larger DNA devices that can work inside the human body.

He also mentions the nanobots that will heal your body (according to many works of fiction),

Researchers at Harvard Medical School have used DNA to design and build a nanosized robot that acts as a drug delivery vehicle to target specific cells. The nanorobot comes in the form of an open barrel made of DNA, whose two halves are connected by a hinge held shut by special DNA handles. These handles can recognise combinations of specific proteins present on the surface of cells, including ones associated with diseases.

When the robot comes into contact with the right cells, it opens the container and delivers its cargo. When applied to a mixture of healthy and cancerous human blood cells, these robots showed the ability to target and kill half of the cancer cells, while the healthy cells were left unharmed.

Palma is describing a very exciting development and there are many teams worldwide working on ways to make drugs more effective and less side effect-ridden. However there does seem to be a bit of a problem with targeted drug delivery as noted in my April 27, 2016 posting,

According to an April 27, 2016 news item on Nanowerk researchers at the University of Toronto (Canada) along with their collaborators in the US (Harvard Medical School) and Japan (University of Tokyo) have determined that less than 1% of nanoparticle-based drugs reach their intended destination …

Less than 1%? Admittedly, nanoparticles are not the same as nanobots but the problem is in the delivery, from my April 27, 2016 posting,

… the authors argue that, in order to increase nanoparticle delivery efficiency, a systematic and coordinated long-term strategy is necessary. To build a strong foundation for the field of cancer nanomedicine, researchers will need to understand a lot more about the interactions between nanoparticles and the body’s various organs than they do today. …

I imagine nanobots will suffer a similar fate since the actual delivery mechanism to a targeted cell is still a mystery.

I quite enjoyed Palma’s essay and appreciated the links he provided. My only proviso, keep a salt shaker nearby. That rosy future is going take a while to get here.

Interconnected performance analysis music hub shared by McGill University and Université de Montréal announced* June 2, 2016

The press releases promise the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology (CIRMMT) will shape the future of music. The CIRMMT June 2, 2016 (Future of Music) press release (received via email) describes the funding support,

A significant investment of public and private support that will redefine the future of music research in Canada by transforming the way musicians compose,listen and perform music.

The Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology (CIRMMT), the Schulich School of Music of McGill University and the Faculty of Music of l’Université de Montréal are creating a unique interconnected research hub that will quite literally link two exceptional spaces at two of Canada’s most renowned music schools.

Imagine a new space and community where musicians, scientists and engineers join forces to gain a better understanding of the influence that music plays on individuals as well as their physical, psychological and even neurological conditions; experience the acoustics of an 18th century Viennese concert hall created with the touch of a fingertip; or attending an orchestral performance in one concert hall but hearing and seeing musicians performing from a completely different venue across town… All this and more will soon become possible here in Montreal!

The combination of public and private gifts will broaden our musical horizons exponentially thanks to significant investment for music research in Canada. With over $14.5 million in grants from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), the Government of Quebec and the Fonds de Recherche du Québec (FRQ), and a substantial contribution of an additional $2.5million gift from private philanthropy.

“We are grateful for this exceptional investment in music research from both the federal and provincial governments and from our generous donors,” says McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier. “This will further the collaboration between these two outstanding music schools and support the training of the next generation of music researchers and artists. For anyone who loves music, this is very exciting news.”

There’s not much technical detail in this one but here it is,

Digital channels coupling McGill University’s Music Multimedia Room (MMR – a large, sound-isolated performance lab) and l’Université de Montréal’s Salle Claude Champagne ([SCC -] a superb concert hall) will transform these two exceptional spaces into the world’s leading research facility for the scientific study of live performance, movement of recorded sound in space, and distributed performance (where musicians in different locations perform together).

“The interaction between scientific/technological research and artistic practice is one of the most fruitful avenues for future developments in both fields. This remarkable investment in music research is a wonderful recognition of the important contributions of the arts to Canadian society”, says Sean Ferguson, Dean of Schulich School of Music

The other CIRMMT June 2, 2016 (Collaborative hub) press  release (received via email) elaborates somewhat on the technology,

The MMR (McGill University’s Music Multimedia Room) will undergo complete renovations which include the addition of high quality variable acoustical treatment and a state-of-the-art rigging system. An active enhancement and sound spatialization system, together with stereoscopic projectors and displays, will provide virtual acoustic and immersive environments. At the SCC (l’Université de Montréal’s Salle Claude Champagne), the creation of a laboratory, a control room and a customizable rigging system will enable the installation and utilization of new research equipment’s in this acoustically-rich environment. These improvements will drastically augment the research possibilities in the hall, making it a unique hub in Canada for researchers to validate their experiments in a real concert hall.

“This infrastructure will provide exceptional spaces for performance analysis of multiple performers and audience members simultaneously, with equipment such as markerless motion-capture equipment and eye trackers. It will also connect both spaces for experimentations on distributed performances and will make possible new kinds of multimedia artworks.

The research and benefits

The research program includes looking at audio recording technologies, audio and video in immersive environments, and ultra-videoconferencing, leading to the development of new technologies for audio recording, film, television, distance education, and multi-media artworks; as well as a focus on cognition and perception in musical performance by large ensembles and on the rhythmical synchronization and sound blending of performers.

Social benefits include distance learning, videoconferencing, and improvements to the quality of both recorded music and live performance. Health benefits include improved hearing aids, noise reduction in airplanes and public spaces, and science-based music pedagogies and therapy. Economic benefits include innovations in sound recording, film and video games, and the training of highly qualified personnel across disciplines.

Amongst other activities they will be exploring data sonification as it relates to performance.

Hopefully, I’ll have more after the livestreamed press conference being held this afternoon, June 2, 2016,  (2:30 pm EST) at the CIRMMT.

*’opens’ changed to ‘announced’ on June 2, 2016 at 1335 hours PST.

ETA June 8, 2016: I did attend the press conference via livestream. There was some lovely violin played and the piece proved to be a demonstration of the work they’re hoping to expand on now that there will be a CIRMMT (pronounced kermit). There was a lot of excitement and I think that’s largely due to the number of years it’s taken to get to this point. One of the speakers reminisced about being a music student at McGill in the 1970s when they first started talking about getting a new music building.

They did get their building but have unable to complete it until these 2016 funds were awarded. Honestly, all the speakers seemed a bit giddy with delight. I wish them all congratulations!