Microsoft Canada highlights Canadian AI initiatives at Future Now 2019 event

Microsoft holds this annual event both to demonstrate Microsoft’s position on the cutting edge of new technology, and to inspire customers and prospects in attendance with examples of how Canadians have had strong results putting these concepts into practice.

Microsoft Canada’s Kevin Peesker at Future Now 2019

TORONTO – “This concept of Future Now is a reality now, and a core topic for us as Canadians,” stated Kevin Peesker, Microsoft Canada’s President, wrapping up the keynotes from Microsoft’s Future Now 2019 event at the Beanfield Centre in Toronto. The conference this year gave emphasis to AI [artificial intelligence] beyond its role in software applications. “Future Now is about infusing AI through everything that can be done in an organization.” Peesker stressed. To this end, the event showcased AI-related innovation by Canadian companies and entrepreneurs, with a particular focus on work being done around AI by comparatively young Canadians.

“Artificial Intelligence is the defining technology of our time,” Peesker said. “Organizations that embrace it are effectively preparing themselves to compete now and in the future, while those that do not risk falling behind.”

“We are now in a world where people show up at the golf club with 3D printed golf clubs,” said Jim Carroll, the Toronto-based futurist who gave the headline keynote at the event, referencing a recent playing partner he met on his home course, a retired engineer who had a highly unusual wedge club that he designed himself using 3D printing. “It was a fail, and at the end of the round, he threw the club into the lake – but he would be back the next week with another prototype.

“Any one of these trends we are talking about today could go super nova – because the future happens slowly – and then all at once,” Carroll added.

All levels of government in Canada have been seeking to foster innovative trends, and many corporations in Canada have also made investments designed to stimulate technological innovation in corporate research, educational systems, and business processes in the world of work. Peesker noted that Microsoft Canada is investing more than $100 million in cloud technology for these purposes. However, he also indicated that a recent study from Gartner rated Canada 9th out of 10 countries in terms of adopting and deploying AI in business applications. Microsoft Canada emphasized the corollary to their customers at the event, however, focusing on those who are making innovative use of AI.

Microsoft’s Jason Armitage (L) and Dr. Benjamin Haibe-Kains, UHN

“Our theme is making digital transformation real,” said Jason Hermitage, VP Public Sector, Microsoft Canada, introducing Dr. Benjamin Haibe-Kains, Senior Scientist at the  Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, University Health Network [UHN] , in Toronto. The UHN leverages AI and the Microsoft Cloud to develop a shared database for clinicians to run biopsy results to create personalized treatment plans for cancer patients.

“We use machine learning and artificial intelligence to map specifications of a patient’s genetics with DNA against what we observe in the lab,” said Dr. Haibe-Kains. “It predicts which particular therapy will be most effective for an individual patient. AI lets us scale up and scale down so that we can do a month’s work of research in a day. We need quick access to half a million CPUs to get the results, go back to the drawing board, and change the pipeline. It puts us in a good position to find those bio-markers.”

“Digital strategy today really is the business strategy,” said Humza Teherany, Chief Technology and Digital Officer, at MLSE [Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment], a multifaceted sports empire which owns four of Toronto’s five major professional sports teams, as well as affiliated businesses and real estate around them. “Digital is powering everything in the world today, and business and digital strategy need to work together to drive results.”

Teherany, who has been at MLSE for nine months, oversaw the launch of MLSE Digital Labs, which is focused on enhancing fan experience by digital integration, with a heavy emphasis on mobile. Before he came to MLSE, he created a similar organization, Compass Digital Labs, for food services giant Compass Group Canada.

“We are the only sports company who has one of these,” he told the conference.

“I’m really excited about the talent in Toronto and in Canada,” Teherany said. “The next two to five years are all about what companies do with it. We are excited about where AI and machine learning are going to take businesses. The decisions we can make now basically on this technology are thousands of times faster than even five years ago.”

The event also saw the first demo of the HoloLens 2 Mixed Reality smart glasses outside Barcelona, where it was announced at the Mobile World Congress a month ago.

“The original HoloLens was initially focused on entertainment – but that turned out not to be where they were used,” said Craig Cincotta, Senior Director, Communications at Microsoft (Business Applications, Mixed Reality, HoloLens). “It was used in manufacturing design and education – environments where people worked with their hands. So with this we are now 100 per cent focused on commercial and enterprise markets. It has seen quite a bit of use in medical schools, like Case Western Reserve in the U.S.”

Cincotta noted how HoloLens 2 has been adapted to take full advantage of the cloud, especially the investments in Azure, with Spatial Anchors and Remote Rendering cloud services.

“The Comfort level is much more than in the first HoloLens, with changes to the centre of gravity – the first one pulled you down more,” Cincotta said. “There is also a much wider field of view.”

HoloLens 2 will be available ‘at some point’ in 2019.

Two younger Canadians were featured in the keynote. The first speaker was Tanisha Bassan, an 18-year-old former Microsoft Canada high school intern. She is the winner of the CES 2019 Young Innovators to Watch Award for her project in quantum machine learning designed to fight cancer, which killed a close relative. Samin Khan, a University of Toronto student now close to graduation, demoed the inexpensive prosthetic smartARM he developed,  which one he and his innovation partner  the grand prize at last year’s Microsoft’s Imagine Cup.

The breakaway sessions in the afternoon highlighted AI developments in retail, health care and financial services.

Not everything at the event came off quite as intended. Speakers talked about remarkable breakthroughs in voice to text technology. However, the system actually used at the event to provide sort-of real time transcription for the audience was clearly an older one, and contained the kinds of errors that were common a decade ago – with the wrong word often being transcribed or unwanted ch@rac!!ers finding their way into the text.

Finally, while AI was the focus of the event, the mini-show floor at Beanfield had a large display area highlighting Microsoft’s rather slick new Surface devices, which in all truth don’t have too much to do with AI, but certainly seemed to be drawing a lot of interest from attendees notwithstanding.