The centrepiece of Canada’s innovation strategy is the $950-million “supercluster” initiative. The goal, according to the federal government, is for companies of all sizes, academia and the non-profit sector to collaborate on new technologies, to spur economic growth and create jobs. As part of the Innovation Nation series, the Financial Post is taking an in-depth look at each of the five regional projects, and provide continuing coverage of their progress. You can find all of our coverage here.
Louis Roy doesn’t exactly project an air of confidence when he talks about the Montreal artificial intelligence supercluster he co-chairs called Scale AI.
“I don’t know how it’s going to work. But I think the mission that minister (Navdeep) Bains has given us is to make Canada more competitive in the innovation sector,” the chief executive of Optel Group said in an interview at the end of November. “I don’t have the answer, and I’m stressed about that, but I’m OK to jump in and try.
The federal government is ready too, having finalized an agreement in December to give Scale AI $230 million of the $950 million earmarked for its supercluster program.
Montreal is already something of a hub for artificial intelligence, mostly built around the work of University of Montreal professor Yoshua Bengio, one of the world pioneers of deep learning.
But Roy said the big money academic partnerships Bengio and others have developed with the likes of Google LLC, Facebook Inc. and Samsung leave out the little guys.
“I don’t think the cluster in Montreal works well, from what I see,” he said. “It works well for the big companies, but now we need to make it work for the small companies.”
To do that, Roy said, the supercluster will borrow from Optel’s business, which is supply chain traceability.
“Traceability captures data from the mine, from the farm, to the manufacturing to the distribution to the consumer. When I see the quantity of data that we have in our database, it’s tremendous,” Roy said. “Yes, we’re doing brand protection, responsible sourcing, monitoring, but we’re not leveraging the data.”
At the heart of the Scale AI proposal is the idea that artificial intelligence systems can use such data to make better, more efficient supply chains. There’s also some talk about using blockchain technology along with AI for secure tracking.
But details on what the supercluster will achieve, never mind how, are still vague.
In the original proposal, the supercluster was named Scale.ai, but that URL was already taken. Indeed, somebody claiming to own the URL offered multiple times to sell it to the Financial Post for more than US$35,000 — at one point asking to be paid in bitcoin.
Today the scale.ai website hosts a California-based AI company and the Montreal supercluster now called Scale AI has a somewhat less catchy domain name, aisupplychain.ca.
Helene Desmarais, co-chair of the supercluster along with Roy, said its roadmap will evolve as technologies and business needs evolve.
“We will support tactical projects, proposed by our members, that will apply new technologies and processes to improve Canadian supply chains,” she said in an email in February, adding that artificial intelligence could be used to “develop intelligent end-to-end tracking systems of resources in motion such as people, trucks, inventory, monies and the integration of these events into a smart system.”
This article originally appeared in Vancouver Sun