Canadian computer scientists helped pioneer the field of artificial intelligence before it was a buzzword, and now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is hoping to capitalize on their intellectual lead.
Trudeau has become a kind of marketer-in-chief for Canada's tech economy ambitions, accurately explaining the basics of machine learning as he promotes a national plan he says will "secure Canada's foothold in AI research and training."
"Tech giants have taken notice, and are setting up offices in Canada, hiring Canadian experts, and investing time and money into applications that could be as transformative as the internet itself," Trudeau wrote in a guest editorial published this week in the Boston Globe.
Trudeau has been taking that message on the road and is likely to emphasize it again Friday when he addresses a gathering of tech entrepreneurs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His visit to the MIT campus headlines an annual meeting of the school's Solve initiative, which connects innovators with corporate, government and academic resources to help them tackle world problems.
Trudeau isn't the only head of state talking up AI — France's Emmanuel Macron and China's Xi Jinping are among the others — but his deep-in-the-weeds approach has caught U.S. tech companies' attention in contrast to President Donald Trump, whose administration "got off to a little bit of a slow start" in expressing interest, said Erik Brynjolfsson, an MIT professor who directs the school's Initiative on the Digital Economy.
"AI is the most important technology for the next decade or two," said Brynjolfsson, who attended the Trump White House's first AI summit last week. "It's going to completely transform the economy and our society in lots of ways. It's a huge mistake for countries' leaders not to take it seriously."
Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Uber and Samsung have all opened AI research hubs centered in Montreal, Toronto and Edmonton, drawn in large part by decades of academic research into "deep learning" algorithms that helped pave the way for today's digital voice assistants, self-driving technology and photo-tagging services that can recognize a friend's face.
Canada's reputation as a welcoming place for immigrants is also helping, as is Trudeau's enthusiasm about the AI economy, Brynjolfsson said.
"When a national leader says AI is a priority, I think you get more creative, smart young people who will be taking it seriously," he said.
AI is an "easy and recognizable shorthand" for the digital economy Trudeau hopes to foster, said Luke Stark, a Dartmouth College sociologist from Canada who studies the history and philosophy of technology.
A former schoolteacher, Trudeau is "smart enough to know when to learn something so he can talk about it intelligently in a way that helps educate people," Stark said.
Stark said that also allows Trudeau to "push into the background some of the less high-tech, less fashionable elements of the Canadian economy," such as the extraction of oil and gas.
The visit comes amid talks between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico over whether to renew the North American Free Trade Agreement. Negotiators have now gone past an informal Thursday deadline set by U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, increasing the likelihood that talks could drag into 2019.