Debbie McKee Demczyk
Dean of the Office of Research Services, Innovation and Entrepreneurship - Durham College

Industry-Academia Collaboration for SMEs’ Successful Implementation of AI

Listen to the interview via our AI text-to-speech service.

Takeaways

  1. SMEs must leverage the implementation of AI to increase their productivity and competitiveness.
  2. Healthy and well-funded collaborations between industry and academia will be the key to helping SMEs overcome the hurdles of AI implementation, including lack of awareness of the opportunity, access to talent, and access to research infrastructure.
  3. Canada is well positioned to be at the forefront of the development of a code of ethics for AI and professional standards for AI researchers and developers.

Action

Our governments must provide the right business environment for companies to innovate and invest. Businesses must champion leadership skills and create a highly skilled workforce that strives to improve and is rewarded for it. By properly leveraging the incredible talent that already exists in Canada, we will be able to maintain our leadership position in the world.


Why is AI implementation for SMEs an important issue and what should the government be doing in order to help businesses in this respect?

The Canadian economy is based around our small and medium enterprises (SMEs). For example, over 95% of our national labour force works for such companies. So, we cannot forget their importance to our current and future economy. A vibrant economy can support all kinds of companies regardless of structure or size, as long as everyone is moving in the same direction around innovation, employment, opportunities, and the retraining and upskilling of employees. So supporting SMEs to make incremental productivity and competitiveness improvements through AI will only further bolster our national economy.

Therefore, government and our policy makers need to create an environment that will support business innovation through tax environments, regulatory environments, and legal environments. Within that, targeted programs that support advancement are vitally important – and this includes programs that assist SMEs with the implementation of AI.

“Government and our policy makers need to create an environment that will support business innovation through tax environments, regulatory environments, and legal environments.”

From a college perspective, we receive a certain amount of funding from the federal and provincial governments to support collaborations between industry and academia. By providing more funding opportunities, the government offers businesses a relatively safe and low-risk avenue to enter into a collaboration. 

At the AI Hub, we have found that the companies we work with often come to us with uncertainty and a minimal cash investment, and still experience great returns. They see the calibre of student talent that is coming out of the college and are starting to recognize the impact of AI on their business. Because of that, a level of trust is starting to emerge.


What are some challenges you have observed regarding the drive to introduce AI as a concept to business and society in general?

When we talk about AI for SMEs, we are talking about systems and applications that can complete specific tasks that were previously completed by humans. We are talking about a narrower notion of AI, where AI systems are created to address a specific challenge. However, many people do not understand this and get spooked by the idea of AI.

We all interact with AI on a daily basis, but I am still surprised at how nebulous the concept is. We all use Netflix. We all use Google maps. We all use Amazon and we trust the AI-generated recommendations that those sorts of tools provide us. But at the same time, those processes are quite intangible.

I think a lot of this misunderstanding stems from the fact that AI has developed so quickly, and education has not kept up in the same sense. This leads to a lack of trust around AI and I think that is one of the elements Canada’s AI ecosystem needs to tackle if we are to continue to be leaders in AI.

It is not only the average consumer that has questions about AI; businesses do, too. We have companies contact us who want to integrate AI into their operations but don’t really know what that means and where the opportunities are. As a result, we do end up doing a fair amount of consulting with the companies we work with.

This idea of demystifying AI – from a consumer perspective and from a business perspective – is one of the big things we need to address in terms of the business challenges relating to AI.


How must industry and academia collaborate to meet the challenges posed by a rapidly changing workforce and skills needs driven by tech developments such as AI?

The pace of change with AI is phenomenal. Even the content that we provide for our students is constantly being refreshed as new technologies and systems emerge. That pace of change also brings about a need for talent, and colleges and universities need to make a strong contribution there. As the labour force is disrupted with the changing pace of technology, companies need their existing employees to either upskill or perhaps even reskill. So, there needs to be a deep collaboration between industry and academia in a way that we have not necessarily seen before.

“As the labour force is disrupted with the changing pace of technology, companies need their existing employees to either upskill or perhaps even reskill. So, there needs to be a deep collaboration between industry and academia in a way that we have not necessarily seen before.”

Every one of our academic programs has a program advisory committee, which is comprised of members of the community, especially the business community. They help us make sure our curriculum is current and addresses industry needs so when our students graduate, they are employable. The great thing about colleges is that we offer part-time, flexible learning along with micro credentials. Micro credentials are emerging as a new way of educating people who are already employed so that they can come and learn new skills and competencies whenever they need to.

Canada has a shortage of STEM talent, in a time when global competition for those skills is exceptionally strong. We need to give some thought to how we can grow our STEM fields. One way to do so is to,expose our children to all kinds of career options starting when they are young. One way we do that at Durham College is hosting an annual conference for girls that are in grades seven and eight to introduce them to the STEM fields.


How does industry benefit from collaborating with academia on applied research projects?

In Canada, there is low investment in cutting-edge technology compared to other countries. In addition, business spending on R&D as a share of the economy has also traditionally been low. 

To fix this, businesses have to commit to innovation as a business strategy. Business innovation is simply finding new or better ways of doing valued things. It is also the process by which economic value is extracted from knowledge,by taking ideas and transforming them into new products, processes, and services. That is how we can make businesses more competitive. 

“Businesses have to commit to innovation as a business strategy. Business innovation is simply finding new or better ways of doing valued things. It is also the process by which economic value is extracted from knowledge.”

One of the things that is sometimes missed in the conversation about business innovation is incremental innovation. Colleges have the ability to facilitate that kind of innovation.This is because colleges know the local business community and already have strong relationships within it. We also have an ample supply of students who are ready to learn and eager to train for their future careers, as well as state-of-the-art facilities that have become an incredible resource to local businesses. This represents a big opportunity our business communities must tap into.

Our college’s applied research model is based on something we call “market pull”, whereby the market pulls us into their business. We are simply responding to the needs that are presented to us. Healthcare, for example, has been a focus for us because we have had a number of local health-focused startups approach us with innovation challenges, as well as the local hospital, Lakeridge Health, which came to us with an interest in developing an innovative wait time service. We also have a state-of-the-art integrated manufacturing centre. There are opportunities around robotics, automation and AI that are starting to emerge, as well as cybersecurity, which of course intersects with many industries. All this means there are plenty of resources for SMEs seeking to integrate AI into their operations. 

“One of the things that is sometimes missed in the conversation about business innovation is incremental innovation. Colleges have the ability to facilitate that kind of innovation.”

The federal government has contributed to the collaboration between industry and academia’s research programs in terms of funding and research infrastructure. This funding has allowed this collaboration to thrive. However, we fall short as a country around the commercialization of our research. And this is something we must address.


What are some of the new frontiers we can expect regarding the implementation of AI and what should Canada focus on to best position itself?

In general, ethical issues are contributing to a distrust of AI. Questions around privacy, social media, and AI giants stitching together data points about people to create profiles – these are all scary ideas. There have also been media reports of AI being used to influence political matters, such as the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal. All of these ethical issues are causing great concern, and rightly so. Which is why government has a leadership role to play in developing principles centered around developing AI for the good of humanity and developing AI that is fair.

Canada is held to a very high standard when it comes to inclusion and diversity, and that is something that we should all be very proud of. As such, Canada will be looked to as potentially leading some of these conversations around ethics. But, when we start to tackle the ethical issues around AI, we have to do it in an inclusive and in a collaborative way.There is a role for government, a role for business, and a role for community groups.

“Canada will be looked to as potentially leading some of these conversations around ethics. But, when we start to tackle the ethical issues around AI, we have to do it in an inclusive and in a collaborative way.”

There are also opportunities for Canada to create professional standards for AI, which could mean certification bodies for people who create AI applications. There would then be a professional expectation to help creators uphold an ethical standard.

One of the ways we can start building trust for AI is by giving the public access to AI products and services, as well as its many different types of applications. If people have a chance to use and touch this technology, increased knowledge and awareness will follow and create more opportunities. If the government starts using more AI technology to deliver public services, there is a real opportunity to create positive visibility.