indicatorInnovation and Technology

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the fourth industrial revolution Canadian businesses need to adopt

By ATB Financial 1 September 2020 5 min read

In a time of unparallelled shifts in the global economic landscape, business owners and leaders have been called to be more resilient and agile than ever before. In and amongst all this change, artificial intelligence (AI) is growing to become one of the most disruptive innovations impacting business today. It’s a far cry from a passing trend: By 2030, it’s estimated that around 70 percent of companies around the world might have adopted at least one type of AI technology, as a McKinsey Global Institute report predicted.

No matter the industry, AI is a powerful tool to enhance business operations, streamline workflow, and manage massive amounts of data that human workers would find overwhelming. From health care to agriculture to financial services, AI’s role has dramatically increased over the years within hundreds of sectors in Canada, and experts believe its impact will only increase over the years, as long as Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) and business owners implement it responsibly.

“Bringing AI into your business has become more accessible and less expensive than ever before,” says Dan Semmens, vice-president and head of AI at ATB. “You don’t need to have AI experts on board to realize its value for your organization.”

Nor does your business have to elevate to the level of a Google or IBM to recognize the benefits of harnessing AI’s advantages. “On the small to medium sized business side, we’ve seen a growing understanding and interest of what AI can solve for those in that medium to small business space,” Semmens adds.


How predictive analytics can help your business

To look at one facet of AI, Semmens says predictive analytics could be vital to many offices. “Where appropriate, a company can move from descriptive analytics, which looks at what happened, towards what will likely happen and what are the statistically significant reasons as to why it will happen.”

AI capabilities have invigorated the operations within ATB, too, Semmens points out. ATB is processing its top customer service requests 99 per cent faster thanks to AI, an amount reaching more than 200,000 in the last year. “Also, we are able to have better conversations with our customers and provide better advice,” he says.

It helps to be in a Canadian region widely heralded as a hub for AI research. The University of Alberta ranks third in the world in this category, surpassing even Cornell and Harvard, and in 2002 it founded the Alberta Ingenuity Centre for Machine Learning, later rebranded as the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute or Amii.

Alberta’s famed energy sector has also shaken hands with Amii researchers in a partnership inked in September 2019, when the institute and Imperial announced a two-year agreement to collaborate on building Imperial’s in-house machine learning projects, which will enable the development of more effective ways to recover oil and gas resources, reduce environmental impacts and improve the safety of its workforce.

Looking beyond Alberta to view the country’s position in AI innovation, Canada ranks in the top five worldwide for the number of high-impact AI researchers and for AI-related job openings, according to the Global AI Talent Report 2019.


Opportunities and challenges facing AI

You never know when AI prowess will flex its muscles. Semmens shares the example of ATB hosting a “Datathon” that asked computer scientist teams to create solutions to everyday problems facing Albertans. One team, Semmens remembers, earned a finalist spot by creating a computer vision platform using a neural network in order to scan crop imagery to classify the growth stage of the crop.

It’s that kind of creative thinking that could open more doors to new ideas vital to forward-thinking business, Semmens says.

But the AI picture isn’t all rosy. Jim Hinton, an IP lawyer and founder of the Own Innovation consultancy, told reporters that he estimates more than half of all AI patents in Canada end up being owned by foreign companies.

“We’re selling our lunch. What we need to be doing is getting money out of our ideas ourselves, instead of seeing foreign talent scoop it all up,” he said. “Otherwise we’ll never have a Canadian champion.”

Semmens agrees this is an issue that should be addressed immediately. “Canada needs to step up and take ownership of our ideas, and the opportunities in our industry to commercialize AI. We have a limited window in this industry to demonstrate our ability to define innovative use-cases that solve meaningful business problems and to demonstrate that we have the know-how to commercialize them. Failure to do so will see Canada's ranking slip as a world leader in AI.”

It’s also integral for Canadian businesses to not just inject AI capabilities into their core processes simply because the technology is a hot buzzword today. Semmens remarks, “Businesses should ensure decisions about AI are being made that can be explained, and that the ethical decisions being made are in accordance with existing ethics and bias practices folded within your organization already.”

ATB has long been committed to advising businesses on how breakthrough technologies can solve challenging problems, large and small. ATB has deep knowledge about several AI technologies such as natural language processing and machine learning, Semmens notes, and ATB is an active participant in the tech community to share best practices and ideas, and to partner with local groups or other industries to co-innovate to build AI communities in the province.

“Also, we work with institutions such as U of A, AltaML and Amii to create a talent pipeline of resource in Alberta, whether this is through U of A labs or incubator programs with other industries,” he adds.


The perfect balance between human and machine learning

AI has been dubbed the fourth industrial revolution, and its vast potential hasn’t yet been realized because of its many tentacles that have yet to significantly ripple across business sectors. Already, though, Canadian businesses have felt AI’s impact, especially if they are savvy enough to adopt one of its many iterations into everyday operations.

“It’s all about getting right that balance,” Semmens says. “Businesses need to reach that perfect balance between human and machine. You can have that relationship where the manager is augmented with AI capabilities that provide better service and advice to customers.”

Case study: Why ATB switched to Google

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