Reading (1 of 2): an artificial intelligence story in British Columbia (Canada)

Every once in a while I decide to dive further into a story and highlight some of the ways in which we all get fooled into thinking that the technology industry is going to leave British Columbia with use of a survey (Reading [1 of 2]) or that we can somehow make ourselves healthier (Reading [2 of 2)) with the use ‘scientifically’ derived data.

Setting the scene

The last time I encountered Miro Cernetig was when he was a member of a panel of political pundits (he was a reporter for the Vancouver Sun at that time in 2009). It seems he’s moved on into the realm of ‘storymaking’ and public relations. He popped up in Nick Eagland’s October 5, 2019 article (Artificial intelligence firms in B.C. seek more support from federal government),

Handol Kim, vice-chair of Network [Artificial Intelligence Network of B.C (AInBC)] said federal funding and support don’t measure up to the size and pace of B.C.’s AI sector, and should be earmarked for research.

In 2017, the federal budget included $125 million in funding for AI research at institutes in Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal. [emphasis mine] Kim said those centres boast AI “super star” and “rock star” researchers with international name recognition. B.C.’s sector hasn’t been able to market itself that way but has plenty to offer, Kim said.

“The tech industry doesn’t automatically assume the government is going to help,” he said. “But where government does have a role to play is in research and funding research, especially when we have a tenuous lead and a good position, and we’re getting outspent.”

CityAge is partnering with the Artificial Intelligence Network for CrossOver: AI, a conference in Vancouver on Dec. 9 [2019], which will help draw national attention to B.C.’s sector, said CityAge co-founder Miro Cernetig.[emphasis mine]

Cernetig, owner of branding agency Catalytico, said B.C.’s sector is strong at commercializing its technology — getting it to market for a profit. But he worries that Canada is too often recognized only for its natural resources, when it has plenty of “human capital” to give it an edge in the development of AI, particularly in B.C.

“It’s important that Vancouver and British Columbia be fully integrated into the national data strategy, which includes AI,” he said.

“Because the only way we’ll be able to compete globally is if we take all of the best pieces and nodes of excellent across the country and bring them together into a true Canadian approach.”

This seems like a standard ploy. “Our industry is not getting enough support, please give us more federal money or lower taxes, etc.” Looking backwards from our latest federal election on Oct. 22, 2019, the timing for this plea seems odd. Unless it’s a misdirect and the real audience is the provincial government (British Columbia). So, what is the story?

Storymaking, surveys, and the tech sector in BC

Cernetig bills himself as a ‘storymaker’ on his LinkedIn profile,

Miro Cernetig
Storymaker and seasoned strategist who is founder of Catalytico ~ ideas in motion & Co-Founder of CityAge.

As noted earlier, Cernetig was a journalist (which gives him credentials when placing a story with former colleagues in the media). He also seems to have been quite successful (from his Huffington Post biography),

Globe and Mail‘s bureau chief in Beijing, New York, Vancouver, Edmonton and the Arctic. He was also the Quebec bureau chief for the Toronto Star. During his 25-year career Miro has worked in film, print and digital mediums for the Globe and Mail, the CBC, the Toronto Star and most recently as a staff columnist at the Vancouver Sun.

Miro’s writing — on business, culture, politics and public policy — has also appeared in ROB Magazine [Report on Business; a Globe and Mail publication], the New York Times, the Economist, the International Herald Tribune and People Magazine.

..

Lies, damn lies and statistics

I can’t find anything that suggests Cernetig has a background in any type of science. Presumably his employees at CityAge have some skills in polling and/or social sciences (from Eagland’s October 5, 2019 article (Artificial intelligence firms in B.C. seek more support from federal government),

A new survey found that more than half of B.C’s. artificial intelligence companies believe the federal government is not doing enough to boost the sector, and half have considered leaving the province. [emphasis mine]

The non-profit industry association, Artificial Intelligence Network of B.C., [AInBC] says there are more than 150 AI-related firms in B.C. and more than 65 submitted responses to its survey, which was conducted by CityAge and released this week. [emphases mine]

More than 56 per cent of respondents said the federal government needs to do more to help the local AI sector grow, with 31 per cent saying its efforts were lacking and 24 per cent saying they needed major attention.

Half of respondents said they have considered moving their companies out of B.C. They main reasons they gave were a desire to connect to bigger markets (35 per cent) and to operate in a better taxation and regulatory environment (11 per cent).

The firms said their most significant impediments to growth were lack of capital (30 per cent) and an inability to access the right talent (27 per cent).

But they also showed hope for the future, with 47 per cent saying they are “very confident” they will grow over the next three to five years, and 33 per cent saying they are “solid” but could be doing better.

A survey, eh? I guarantee that I could devise one where a majority of the respondents agree that I should receive $1M or more from the government, tax free, and for no particular reason.

It’s funny. We know surveys are highly dependent on who is surveyed and how and in what order the questions are asked and yet we forget when we see ‘survey facts’ published somewhere.

Does anyone think that members of the Artificial Intelligence Network of B.C would say no to more financial support? What was the point of the survey? The whole thing reminds me of an old saying, “lies, damn lies, and statistics,” (Note: Links in the excerpt have been removed)

Lies, damned lies, and statistics” is a phrase describing the persuasive power of numbers, particularly the use of statistics to bolster weak arguments. It is also sometimes colloquially used to doubt statistics used to prove an opponent’s point.

The phrase was popularized in the United States by Mark Twain (among others), who attributed it to the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” However, the phrase is not found in any of Disraeli’s works and the earliest known appearances were years after his death. Several other people have been listed as originators of the quote, and it is often erroneously attributed to Twain himself.[1]

By the way, I haven’t been able to find the survey or a report about the survey available online, which means that the methodology can’t be examined.

What’s the story? Answer: confusing

Eagland’s article looks like part of a campaign to get the federal government to spread their AI largesse in BC’s direction. (Am I the only one who thinks that British Columbia’s AI companies and educational institutions are smarting because they weren’t included in the federal government’s 2017 Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy? They budgeted $125M for AI communities in Edmonton, Montréal, and Toronto.) Or, it’s possible AInBC is signaling the provincial government that there are problems which they (the provincial government) could solve with funding

In Eagland’s relatively short article there’s a second message; it’s about an upcoming AI conference, CrossOver: AI on December 9, 2019. At that point, the articles start to look like an advertisement for an event organized by CityAge’s (Miro Cernetig’s company). I found this on the conference website’s About page,

Artificial Intelligence, and the technologies around it, will determine the builders of our future economy.

British Columbia has — and is building — that crucial AI ecosystem. Through it, we will have the local and global reach to build the future.

Organized by CityAge and the Artificial Intelligence network of British Columbia, CrossOver: AI will connect and catalyze an essential network of leaders in British Columbia and Canada’s emerging AI ecosystem. To take BC’s strengths in this transformative technology to the national and global stage.

CrossOver AI will:

Establish British Columbia as a national and global leader in AI/ML.

Showcase BC’s AI/ML start-up ecosystem to global investors and corporations for investment and partnerships.

Attract global corporations to invest in establishing AI/ML R&D in BC.

Demonstrate to BC and Canada’s business, government and academic leadership that we have a strong, growing AI network.

Gather and connect all of the members of BC’s AI network to each other.

CrossOver AI’s program will be structured to provide an engaging combination of high-quality content and practical business information.

The morning of the event will be a mix of panel discussions and 20-minute TED-style presentations.

The afternoon will be organized as an interactive mix of pitch sessions that profile the opportunities in global AI and BC’s capabilities.

About AInBC

The Artificial Intelligence network of British Columbia (AInBC) was established by business and academic leaders to unify, organize and catalyze the Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) communities in British Columbia (BC) to establish BC as a national and global leader in AI by 2022.

AInBC believes that AI/ML is of strategic importance to the economic and social well-being of everyone in BC, and is dedicated to ensuring that BC leads rather than follows.

We define the AI community in BC as:
Academic Institutions
AI/ML companies/start-ups
Corporations with AI/ML initiatives
Entrepreneurs
Investment Community
Students
Government (Provincial and Municipal)
Foreign/Non-BC based Corporations seeking AI/ML talent in BC

AInBC recognizes that all members of this community must be served in order to create a vigorous and high-growth ecosystem that benefits all members and the province overall. AInBC is a not-for-profit Society.

About CityAge
CityAge was founded on the idea that a neutral, focused set of high-powered conversations will help us develop and implement big ideas that build the future. 

CityAge has held over 50 conferences on a variety of topics in major urban markets across North America, Europe and Asia, ranging in size from 150 to 500 leaders. 

More than 7,000 leaders have attended CityAge and are part of the CityAge network.

I also found themes,

Which Businesses AI is Disrupting Now: How your organization can use this essential new tool for business, managing natural resources, and discovering innovations. AI isn’t just for Silicon Valley; it’s available to everyone.

Unicorn AI: BC’s AI companies have the potential to be global players. We’ll look at how we can help them get there.

Attracting Global AI Investment: What do BC and Canada need to do to attract human and financial capital to the emerging AI cluster? How do we get the news out to the world that we are taking a leading role in the AI revolution?

AI for a Better World:  AI will allow us new ways to look at social challenges we’ve been trying to solve. How will AI, with the human component and thoughtful policy, help us build a stronger economy and society?

AI and The Data Effect: BC and Canada can responsibly gather and use the data that AI needs. We will look at what competitors are doing, what our strategic advantages are, and how to use them to build our AI cluster.

Ethical AI: How to control the risks, enroll the public, and use AI to build the economy and improve lives.

It’s nice to see that they’ve tucked in ‘ethics’ and ‘making the world a better place’ along with the business-oriented themes.

As for what constitutes this story, it seems a little confused. First, we want money from the federal government 9we might leave if we don’t get it) and, second, we’ve got a conference where we want to attract business people and investors.

Analyzing the confusion

It would have been good to find out more about the artificial intelligence community in BC. Unfortunately, I don’t think Nick Eagland has enough experience to get that story. (BTW, A lot of reporters don’t have enough experience to ask the right questions, especially in science and technology. They don’t have the time to adequately research the topic and they can’t draw on past experience because they don’t spend enough time focused on one subject area long enough to learn about it.)

As for the branding or storymaking strategy on display, I don’t think it was a good idea to bundle the two messages together but then I’m not a member of any target audiences (e.g., business investor, venture capitalist, policy maker, etc.). As well, I’m not the client who may have been driving this message or, in this case, incompatible messages and there’s not a lot the PR flack can do in that case.

An example of ‘good’ storymaking

As for the standard tech community complaints, here’s one of the latest examples and it’s a good example of how to do this. From an Oct. 7, 2019 news item on Daily Hive,

Over 110 Canadian tech CEOs have signed an open letter urging political parties to take action to strengthen the country’s innovative economy, and avoid falling further behind international peers.

So far, major parties have put forward pledges in areas like affordability, first-time home buyers, and climate change, but the campaigns have offered few promises designed to drive economic growth in the digital age.

The letter was drafted by the Council of Canadian Innovators, a lobby group representing some of the country’s fastest-growing companies. Combined, its signatories run domestic firms that employed more than 35,000 people last year and generated more than $6 billion for the Canadian economy.

Ian Rae, CEO of Montreal big-data firm CloudOps, said his engineers receive unsolicited job offers, usually with big salaries and mostly from US tech firms.

“We need to be thinking in Canada about the future economy and the fact that the globe seems to be in this enormous shift towards the globalized digital economy,” said Rae.

He said deep-pocketed foreign investors have also had their eyes on Canadian firms with potential. The risk, he said, is that these companies are bought out before they can grow and generate wealth and employment returns in Canada.

“A lot of these US companies are cherry-picking Canadian scale-ups before they scale up, so that the ultimate net benefit tends to flow outside of the Canadian economy,” Rae said.

Tech CEOs have said the Liberal government’s efforts in recent years to support high growth firms have offered little for emerging scale-up companies that have already outgrown the start-up phase.

David Ross, CEO of Ross Video, said a recent study by the University of Toronto found that Canada was an international laggard when it came to scaling up private firms to the billion dollar mark, companies also known as unicorns. [emphasis mine]

“The situation is so bad that even if we were to create four times as many unicorns, we would still be in last place,” said the study from the university’s Impact Centre.

Ross, whose Ottawa information and communications technology company has 650 employees, said the performance “should be a bit of a crisis for our politicians.”

“Canada should be more than rocks, trees, and oil,” Ross said.


This story was tightly focused on science and technology innovation and party platforms prior to the October 21, 2019 election. It was timely and it was an appeal to make Canada “… more than rocks, …” tying in very nicely with an iconic slam poetry presentation (We Are More) at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver by Shane Koyczan.

Should you be interested in more information about Mr. Cenetig’s companies, you can find out more about Catalytico here and CityAge here.

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