Local firms ahead of curve on machine learning

January 12, 2017
Author: Martin Cash

Since the announcement last March of a community collaboration to establish a national centre for the commercialization of machine learning in Winnipeg, the words "machine learning" have started appearing much more often in the mainstream.

The creation of the Enterprise Machine Intelligence and Learning Initiative (EMILI) was not the impetus for the increased interest in machine learning, but clearly the Manitoba contingent that envisioned EMILI were on the ball and maybe ahead of the curve.

Machine learning is a "subset of artificial intelligence, uses mathematical models, (algorithms) to identify trends and patterns in data to predict the possibility of future outcomes," the EMILI website states.

The fact big data and the Internet of Things is starting to pump out massive volumes of data means the application of machine learning is all of a sudden becoming entirely applicable in so many fields.

For instance, Farmers Edge, the Winnipeg precision agriculture solutions provider, deploys machine learning. In 2013, its operations were collecting data from 575,000 acres. At the end of 2016 it was up to 8.4 million acres from around the world. It expects to double that coverage by the end of 2017.

Wade Barnes, founder and CEO of the company, said deploying algorithms now produces three times better outcomes than a couple of years ago.

"Machine learning will be utterly game-changing for agriculture," he said. "In 2013, Farmers Edge was one of the biggest precision ag providers in the world with 575,000 acres, But to use machine learning (then) we can’t really tease out the trends... When you are at 8.4 million acres, that is something different."

The folks in Winnipeg were clearly not the first or the only ones to identify this. But their initiative, which was in the planning stage even before the Trudeau government announced its intention to set up an $800 million innovation fund, now seems even more on the ball as groups in Toronto and Montreal have emerged, making a case for federal funding.

EMILI is looking for $100 million in funding over five years. The expectation is a funding commitment one way or the other will be made in the Trudeau government’s spring budget.

"Canada is a big country," said Vince Barletta, president and CEO of Yes! Winnipeg and an EMILI board member. "There are a lot of interesting activities taking place around machine learning in Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and other parts of the country. At the end of the day the government of Canada’s Innovation Fund will place multiple bets. They won’t put all their chips on one square on the board... We are highly optimistic one of those investments will be in Winnipeg."

Ray Bouchard, CEO of Enns Brothers and the chairman of the EMILI board said since Manitoba has such a diversified economy, it could concentrate on development of machine learning applications — for instance, in agriculture, resource development, construction and manufacturing sectors.

The Toronto and Montreal hub proposals seem to focus on academic institutions. The EMILI proposal also has an emphasis on commercialization in what is ultimately a general purpose technology platform.

"Absolutely there is a lot of great work being done in machine learning and deep learning across the country," Bouchard said. "Lots of initial work has left the lab. But if we can’t commercialize it and embed it (into commercial operations) we will miss out on the biggest opportunities."

With all of the big technology companies like Google and Apple and Amazon ramping up machine learning applications, it’s not to say Winnipeg is ahead in that regard, but it does have some smart companies blazing trails in their own fields like Farmers Edge, Precision Weather Solutions, Sightline Innovation and Invenia.

Those companies are all enthusiastic about the prospects of a machine learning centre of excellence in Winnipeg.

Suzi Bonk, president and CEO of Precision Weather Solutions, said her company needs to attract researchers, scientists, technologists and all sorts of human resources to the space.

"Doing it at an individual company level is not impossible," she said. "But to do that kind of work... we need institutions and organizations like EMILI that can mobilize the entire ecosystem for that kind of skill set here."  


Source: Winnipeg Free Press 

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"Machine learning will be utterly game-changing for agriculture" Wade Barnes, Founder and CEO of Farmers Edge