Artificial Intelligence

Element AI, seeking to shape national policy, is lobbying Ottawa more than every other artificial intelligence company in Canada combined

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Element AI CEO Jean-François Gagné meet on the sidelines of the Fortune Global Conference in Toronto. October 15, 2018. Element AI
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Element AI has lobbied more federal officials in the past six months than all other artificial intelligence companies—both Canadian and international—combined.

The two-year-old Montreal-based startup has met with numerous cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries, as well as senior officials from several departments, including Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED).

While other AI companies are lobbying for one-off funding for specific initiatives, Element AI says it wants to shape national policy and help craft legislation affecting the entire industry.

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Marc-Etienne Ouimette, Element AI’s public policy director, said his employer is the largest AI company in Canada, and as such, often ends up representing other companies with governments.

“We are more often than not called upon to represent the AI ecosystem, as other companies do not have the bandwidth or capacity to maintain long-term conversations with governments, domestically and abroad,” said Ouimette.

Element AI is an artificial intelligence consulting and development firm for large corporate clients that also acts as an incubator for moonshot projects. The company has global ambitions. Although it only counted about 10 of the world’s 1,000 biggest companies as customers in June, it has 400 employees and offices in Montreal, Toronto, Singapore, Seoul and London. It raised $135 million in June 2017, the largest Series A round for any Canadian AI startup at the time.

The AI sector in Canada is growing rapidly. The number of startups in the space expanded by 28 per cent between 2017 and 2018, and there are currently about 650 companies in major Canadian cities, according to an analysis published by Element AI CEO Jean-François Gagné.

Talking Point

Element AI has lobbied federal officials more times in the past six months than all other AI companies combined. Other startups are simply looking for government funding for themselves. Element AI has grander ambitions—it wants the government to create “infrastructures” partially funded by public funds that would benefit AI businesses, and is also seeking to help craft legislation.

According to sources who spoke to Bloomberg in July, the company is looking for an additional $250 million in capital—a cash injection which, if successful, would value the company at over $1 billion and mark the largest VC funding round ever for a Canadian startup.

Ouimette has been travelling internationally and meeting with other governments for the past year, and thinks Canada is “ahead of the curve” on AI compared with other countries, pointing to the ongoing national data strategy consultations as a positive sign.

“I’d say the main ‘push’ we are making is around understanding the steps we need to collectively take to ensure a positive social outcome out of AI & big data, which we believe will ultimately require regulation & legislation,” said Ouimette, in an email.

Element AI registered to lobby the federal government in March 2017, but didn’t lobby anyone until February 2018. Since then, the company has lobbied 39 times. Thirty-two of those times were in the past six months.

There are six other companies that list AI as a topic on which they want to lobby the federal government: Chisel AI, Thinking Big, Accenture Inc., Triage Technologies, Sightline Innovation and Google. The first five companies lobbied a combined five times in the past six months. Google, which lists it is lobbying on “technological developments related to artificial intelligence” lobbied 25 times over the past six months; it also lists 24 other priorities.

By contrast, Element AI is lobbying exclusively about AI. The company wants departments and agencies throughout government to start using AI, and is seeking more funding for the AI sector—with a focus on startups—and the creation of “infrastructures” partially funded by the government that would benefit AI businesses.

Chisel AI, a Toronto-based company that automates document processing, wants funding for a prototype that would redact government files to speed up the processing of access-to-information requests, according to its filing with the lobbying commissioner. Thinking Big, a P.E.I.-based tech company, wants to learn about existing government small-business programs and “the innovation program funding currently available.”

Gagné and Ouimette met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week. “Canada is in a prime position to lead the world on responsible AI, but there is lots to be done still,” Ouimette posted on LinkedIn afterwards.

In an email to The Logic, Ouimette said the government has asked Element AI to “collaborate” on ways to support the growth of the AI ecosystem. When asked if the government has agreed to any of the things the company is lobbying for, he said, “The government hasn’t ‘agreed’ to do anything in particular, as much as ask us for advice.”

When asked the same question, Derek Mellon, media relations manager for ISED, pointed to the government’s selection of SCALE.AI as one of five superclusters sharing $950 million in government funding, as well as funding for the Montréal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA). Element AI is working on the supercluster, and its co-founder Yoshua Bengio is the scientific director of MILA.

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Mellon also mentioned the $125 million allocated for the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, a program intended to help companies attract and retain top talent.

Regarding whether any government departments or agencies are starting to use AI, Mellon said, “Based on feedback received from industry and government departments, Public Services and Procurement Canada is developing a more iterative and flexible approach to procuring AI services, solutions and products.” The government launched a one-month competition in September for companies to qualify to be long-term AI suppliers.

Over the past year, Element AI has lobbied 12 Liberal MPs, almost all of whom represent Ontario or Quebec ridings. The company also lobbied one NDP MP, Timmins–James Bay representative Charlie Angus, and a single Conservative MP, Matt Jeneroux of Edmonton Riverbend.

But those meetings, recorded in the federal lobbying registry, don’t include all of the company’s interactions with politicians. For example, last week’s meeting with Trudeau isn’t listed in its official disclosures—companies have a few weeks post-lobbying to formally register meetings. The company did register that it had lobbied 13 MPs on May 29, but according to a LinkedIn post from Ouimette, it met with over 40 MPs that day.

Most frequently, Element AI has met with officials from ISED; it has lobbied 6 public servants from the department in 2018. The company has also met with the government’s chief innovation officer, Alex Benay, and its chief technology officer, Marc Brouillard.

In their Element

Members of Parliament that have been lobbied by Element AI

 

Liberal:

 

  1. Diane Lebouthillier, MP for Gaspésie–Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine and Minister of National Revenue
  2. Jonathan Wilkinson, MP for North Vancouver, then-parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change (now Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard)
  3. Marc Miller, MP for Ville-Marie Le Sud-Ouest Île-des-Soeurs (Teiontiakon) and then-parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities (now parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Crown-Indigenous relations)
  4. Joël Lightbound, MP for Louis-Hébert and parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Finance
  5. Omar Alghabra, MP for Mississauga Centre and then-parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs (now parliamentary secretary to the Minister of International Trade Diversification)
  6. David Lametti, MP for LaSalle–Émard–Verdun and parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development
  7. Julie Dzerowicz, MP for Davenport
  8. Julie Dabrusin, MP for Toronto–Danforth and chair of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage
  9. Michel Picard, MP for Montarville
  10. John McKay, MP for Scarborough–Guildwood and chair of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security
  11. David Graham, MP for Laurentides–Labelle
  12. Dan Ruimy, MP for Pitt Meadows–Maple Ridge, and chair of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology

 

Conservative:

 

  1. Matt Jeneroux, MP for Edmonton Riverbend

 

NDP:

 

  1. Charlie Angus, MP for Timmins–James Bay

 

Source: Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying in Canada, 2018

In Quebec, Element AI also has grander ambitions than other companies. Of the eight AI companies currently lobbying the provincial government, five are simply looking for government contracts, and one wants a tax code change that would benefit it exclusively. Thales Canada is the only company other than Element AI with slightly larger goals—it started lobbying the government for funds to create an AI research centre in May 2017 and opened one in October 2017.

Meanwhile, as at the federal level, Element AI wants departments and agencies throughout the provincial government to start using AI. The company is also pushing for recurring funding for AI research, the maintenance of immigration policies that facilitate highly-skilled AI workers entering Quebec and better access to government data.

Jean-Pierre D’Auteuil, a spokesperson for Quebec’s ministry of economy, science and innovation, said that while the government is generally looking to adopt AI technologies, his department hasn’t actually started using any yet. When asked if his department has agreed to any of the other things Element AI is lobbying on, he said his department isn’t up to date with the specific requests.

Element AI is also trying to shape international policy. According to Ouimette, the company receives an average of two foreign delegations a week, “who are coming to understand the Montreal and Canadian AI ecosystems, and to understand how our company has managed to grow so fast.” France’s ambassador to Canada visited Element AI’s office this year, as did the United Arab Emirates’ minister of foreign affairs.

The company played a key role in the release of the Toronto Declaration in May 2018, which outlines ways for corporations and countries worldwide to protect the right to equality and non-discrimination in machine learning systems. The declaration has been endorsed by groups such has Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Gagné is also one of 52 individuals appointed to the European Commission’s High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence, which is advising on legislation that would affect how the technology is deployed throughout Europe.