Digital Tech: A key component of Alberta’s diversified future
- Alberta’s current economic diversifications efforts are the strongest recognition that this process must happen.
- The province’s start-ups, larger businesses, government and university research centers must all collaborate to “quadruple down” to accelerate its tech sector’s growth and build on the early success it has achieved in fields such as AI.
- Alberta’s oil and gas sector is embracing to a greater degree than ever the potential of technologies like AI and others to improve its efficiency and competitiveness.
Alberta’s investors need to be educated with regards to the tech sector in order to encourage greater investment into the province’s technological startups.
Does the fall in oil prices present opportunities for Alberta’s economy?
Definitely. The silver lining of the most recent downturn in the oil prices is simply that it is another reminder that we have to diversify our economy. I credit the current government for embracing that message and I hope that message is maintained in the future. This has been the strongest recognition in the 25 years that I have lived in Alberta that diversification must happen. I have seen some of the programs the government has started, as well as a wave of entrepreneurs who have had successful exits but are staying in the province because they want to be a part of the province’s economic diversification and evolution.
“The silver lining of the most recent downturn in the oil prices is simply that it is another reminder that we have to diversify our economy. I credit the current government for embracing that message.”
The energy sector has always been quite technically savvy, but now, I believe it is embracing to a greater degree than ever the potential of technologies like AI to improve its own efficiency. You see that with the financial technology sector in Alberta as well. Moreover, enrolment in computer science is at record high levels; unfortunately, we do not have the capacity to meet the extreme demand for a computer science education. We should be opening up more spots in computer science programs and hiring educators for a generation of students who want to do computer science rather than more traditional career paths like oil and gas engineering, for example.
How do you assess the province’s support for its digital sectors?
I am very happy with some of the things Alberta has already done in terms of supporting the economy’s digital sectors. Alberta is being very aggressive on things like trade missions to other countries, especially in Asia. It has made a significant commitment to the media industry with its Interactive Digital Media Tax Credit. The tax credit roughly matches what we see in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia, which are all provinces with very healthy and dynamic digital media industries. The incentive itself is a 25% refundable tax credit, which increases to 30% for under-represented groups in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) like women, disabled people and Indigenous people. That’s tremendous.
“I have seen a wave of entrepreneurs who have had successful exits but are staying in the province because they want to be a part of the province’s economic diversification and evolution.”
AI is the next place where our government should make a serious commitment and contribution for the long-term. There is plenty of room for us to take what is already successful from the University of Alberta and University of Calgary, as well as from small AI start-ups, and scale it up.
What is Alberta doing to accelerate its tech sector’s growth and what more should be done?
We should not be shy to admit that Alberta is behind other jurisdictions when it comes to our technology sector. We cannot truly support it until we recognize that just by way of history and by way of circumstance, we are behind. We need to double down on the right sectors, pick winners, decide what really has the best long-term potential for our province and then invest and manage it. There are plenty of tactics that will allow us to do that. For example, venture capital matching is the idea that if a venture capital firm or another major investor is going to put money into a company or industry, then the government should be prepared to add to that. I am a big fan of what Eric Schmidt from Google called the quadrupling down strategy; he talks about that with regard to Canada’s AI industry. He said Canada is doing well in quadrupling down on AI, which is to say that we are seeing start-ups, major businesses, government and university research centers all collaborating to ensure that Canada remains a leader in AI. I think that is the right strategy, we should all be working together and supporting each other at the highest level to achieve that.
“There is plenty of room for us to take what is already successful from the University of Alberta and University of Calgary, as well as from small AI start-ups, and scale it up.”
A major challenge for tech startups in Alberta is investor inexperience in the tech sector. It leads to a lot of money waiting on the sidelines; there are people who want to invest, but are nervous. We have so many smart investors here, but they need support to understand the potential of investing in the technology sector. So we have to educate investors so that they can get more and more confident in their ability to invest in the tech sector. Education coupled with financial support for tech investors will provide the boost that Alberta’s innovation ecosystem needs.
How would you describe the province’s AI education infrastructure?
Alberta needs to find a way to add more capacity to its educational institutions so that we can provide as much education in computer science as possible. Even if we added the capacity, each intake of students could take as long as four years in some programs before they graduate and join the workforce. So we might have to find some shorter-term solutions. As Elon Musk famously said recently, “humans are underrated”. We are still going to need humans to do things for a very long time. There is a lot of opportunity to take people who are currently in different sectors, get them retrained, and have them apply their skills and experience to solving problems with a bit of retraining and support.
Which important industries in Alberta do you identify as having synergies with AI?
You see cross-pollination between tech sectors and AI in two ways. Firstly, other tech sectors embrace AI as a way to achieve new results or solve their challenges. But at the same time, people who have traditionally worked in those industries are also leaving and joining purer AI teams. They do it because they have the talent, the experience and the passion to do so.
“The oil and gas sector in Alberta has a chance to spend its prodigious capital on AI, not just for the benefit of the bottom line but to improve overall efficiency, environmental sustainability and other key metrics.”
The oil and gas sector in Alberta has a chance to spend its prodigious capital on AI, not just for the benefit of the bottom line but to improve overall efficiency, environmental sustainability and other key metrics.