CEO of client company QRA Corp appointed to Federal Advisory Council on Artificial Intelligence
Friday, June 21, 2019
What do Canada's Chief Science Advisor, the Vice President of Emerging Technologies at the National Research Council of Canada, and two Turing Award winners have in common with a company here in Halifax?
More than you might expect.
Local academic-turned-entrepreneur, Jordan Kyriakidis, recently appointed to Canada’s Advisory Council on Artificial Intelligence, is joining some of the top minds in the country to tackle the toughest challenges facing the Artificial Intelligence (AI) community.
A professor for 15 years at Dalhousie University, Kyriakidis leveraged his academic research into entrepreneurial success. A rare exemplar of fundamental science commercialization, QRA Corp began in the lab, growing to become today’s successful tech company attracting both foreign and domestic investment and customers.
We caught up with Kyriakidis to chat about the Council, QRA Corp, and what he enjoys most about living and working in Nova Scotia.
Q: Tell us more about the Council and AI.
A: The other Council members are just amazing. It really is a high-powered Council. There are two Turing award winners, which are the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for computing. SMEs are also represented and lots of experts on ethics. It's a cognitively diverse council.
Often the danger for councils is they resort to statements of principles as opposed to getting in the trenches. We really want action items and concrete recommendations. The main elements of the mandate include:
- Communication to the public about the benefits and dangers of AI
- Balancing ethics, privacy, and transparency
- Building capacity and training AI experts to help address a global shortage
- Commercialization of AI-related IP and the growth of Canadian companies in the field
Q: The theme of the Council is “Building Digital Trust.” What does that mean to you?
A: First, you build trust by clearly saying what you want to do. Then, you do what you say you're going to do — and do it repeatedly and openly. For digital trust, it means balancing privacy and transparency, as well as communicating where that balance lies for Canada. It also means having very clear ethical standards and taking a stand to communicate what the standard is, and also the cost of that standard. It's only by establishing trust that Canada can exert influence and become a leader in AI. We're in a good place now. We want to maintain that and extend it.
Q: How would you describe Nova Scotia's AI cluster?
A: While low in numbers, the people here are high caliber. Certainly, the ocean industry is an advantage. Oceans are important and are going to become even more important. If you look at the mechanism by which goods are traded across the world, oceans by far dominate, right? Then there's also ecological, tourism, etc. There's lots of industries clustered around our oceans. In Nova Scotia, applying data analytics and AI to the data coming from the oceans is something we're good at and we should continue to be good at.
Q: How important have you found collaboration to be in this industry?
A: Collaboration is foundational. It's necessary — especially for the work of the Council. There's no way you can navigate ethical issues, scientific and technological development, commercialization, policy, etc. without having broad consultation and collaboration.
Q: How important is exporting or selling outside the province to your business?
A: I would say 90% of our revenues and customers are outside Canada — not just outside of Nova Scotia. It never even occurred to us to focus inside Nova Scotia. It's literally impossible. We couldn't exist if it was just the domestic market. So, for us, export isn't a thing that's external to us. We don't even think about it. It's existential.
Q: Why is Halifax the right place for QRA Corp to grow?
A: Halifax is equally distant from both California and Europe. There are piles of great universities here, and there's also an amazing level of support here from everyone. If you're unsure about something, you can just pick up the phone and talk to someone, and there really is a sense they want to help. It's genuine here. This region has a high level of integrity, so you have substantial conversations with people.
You know, one thing I would also say about Halifax is something I call the “[jerk]1 ratio.”
I don't know if you can print that2, but I've lived in many different cities and countries, on different continents, and I would say Halifax by far has the lowest “[jerk] ratio” than any city I've lived in. There’s a level of general decency among the whole population that really is something special, and I think it's not recognized here enough. You can paraphrase that how you want.
Halifax is both the smallest big city and largest small town. It sits right in the middle. Because it's the largest centre within a 10-hour drive, it has a level of culture and diversity that is greater than any other city its size. We're a small company, but we have global ambitions, and we really want to build a large company right here in Nova Scotia. That's our goal.
Q: What's your favorite part about living and working here?
A: I can get home from the office in 30 minutes when there's no traffic — 40 minutes when there is traffic. At home, we can see the Milky Way at night. My kids swim and fish in a river that borders our property. I hear owls and woodpeckers every day. Where else can you have that? You just can't.
I grew up in downtown Toronto. That's where I'm from. I used to say the only way I could maintain my lifestyle here if I went back to Toronto would be if I made $600,000 a year. But even then, I still don’t think it’s possible. You can't get to a place where I live in 30 minutes in Toronto. Maybe if I had a helicopter, I guess.
Q: Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to yourself back when QRA Corp. was just getting started?
I would definitely slap myself in the head a few times. The main thing I would say is focus. Focus and plan. Those are the two most important things. Maybe also, act quickly. Once you decide, act quickly to implement it.