These days, AI is an integral part of conversations at every level of society. While these tools have become “basic” commodities for companies in highly competitive tech sectors, it’s important they benefit as large a proportion of our society as possible, so we need mechanisms to ensure extensive accessibility. This not only provides an equal opportunity for as wide a swath of our economy as possible but acts as a safety net for all the communities who will be able to access it. This reality has been building over the past decade but never has it been more obvious than with the onset of the COVID-19 crisis.
AI is past its infancy stage as it transitions from primarily the academic sphere into the rest of society. During this transition, it is imperative that these new tools be offered not only to large tech companies — generally found in urban centers — but also to our small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Many of these smaller companies are based outside of major cities and don’t normally have access to, nor could they afford, this kind of expertise in-house.
Young researchers and students who specialize in foundational AI fields (computer sciences, software engineering, applied mathematics, etc.) can act as a bridge between these disruptive tools and their potential applications. To do this, we need intermediaries, people who can match a researcher solution provider with a need within our communities, then carve out mutually beneficial partnerships between the two. Such connections make these new AI tools accessible across sectors and across the country.
Canada has long been a pioneer in AI — several of the world’s premier AI institutes are here: Mila in Montréal, IID in Québec City, Vector Institute in Toronto, and Amii in Edmonton — and we need well-thought-out strategies to ensure cross-pollination between those who are working with the newest tools and those who could benefit from them. The case for a well-distributed capacity in manipulating AI solutions has only been strengthened by the onset of COVID-19.
One such example is being led by iMD Research in collaboration with University of Alberta and McGill University researchers. The goal is to develop a system that remotely monitors the vital signs of COVID-positive patients who have self-isolated.
There are many similar projects under way. In Montréal, Mila has a number of different ones. In Ontario, Cyclica in partnership with the Vector Institute, is using its proprietary technology for AI-enabled drug repurposing for COVID-19. Hygienic Echo is developing an AI-powered platform to assess hygiene risks in hospitals. Vancouver-based 1Qbit and the Saskatchewan Health Authority are working on a chest radiography AI tool that improves the accuracy and timeliness of diagnosing lung abnormalities.
In all these examples, applied research student interns are at the interface between the companies and state of the art. Building up that capability and capacity provides tangible channels for AI technology to have as wide a reach as possible.
In order to achieve this goal, it’s important that we find ways to: