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Canada uses blockchain to make research grants more transparent

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Blockchain
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The Canadian government has begun trialling blockchain technology as a way to improve the transparency of research grants. The National Research Council (NRC) is currently using an Ethereum-based system to publish funding information in real-time.

In a blog post, the NRC explained how blockchain technology could help to make government contracts more transparent. The blockchain’s public ledger means data recorded on the system is unalterable and open to everyone. This provides transparency into the workings of government, which in turn promotes trust.

Public-private partnership to drive pilot

To implement the trial project, the NRC has partnered with Canadian blockchain SME Bitaccess. It’s also working with the Industrial Research Assistant Program (IRAP), a body that generates a large volume of transactions each year and which would benefit from improved transparency.

Using funding from the Build in Canada Innovation Program, the NRC and Bitaccess are piloting a blockchain record-keeping system for the IRAP’s financial activities.

The program is part of the Canadian government’s wider efforts to improve transparency and utilize modern technologies. The NRC will be responsible for investigating how the blockchain could be applied to other areas of government. If the pilot proves successful, Canada could begin using blockchain more broadly to preserve public records and maintain transparency.

The trial is described as the first “real-use case” of its kind for deploying blockchain tech inside public institutions. The NRC said it expects to acquire “constructive” insights into how blockchain could be used by government bodies. Many tech visionaries see blockchain as crucial to the future of business but it’s still a new concept to most official organisations.

“These are early days yet, but the experiment is expected to provide constructive insight into the potential for blockchain technology and how it may be used for more open and transparent function of public programs,” said the NRC. “This experiment also marks an important step forward for the technology and a commitment by the Government to support emerging Canadian innovation.”

From cryptos to conservation

The blockchain is currently best known as the infrastructure supporting cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. In this scenario, the blockchain records every transaction on a decentralised public ledger. As the blockchain is immutable and distributed across computers around the world, the data stored within is always secured against external tampering.

These qualities are also what makes the blockchain concept attractive to organisations that need to store data transparently. The Canadian government’s initiative is just one example of how the tech could be used. Other recent blockchain-based projects have included schemes aimed at sports fans and unsustainable practices in the tuna industry.

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Canadian Cloud region brings efficiency, agility and AI to businesses

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cloud computing
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Canada’s first Google Cloud region is open for business in Montreal. The new region, called “northamerica-northeast1”, is the 15th for Google worldwide, and the fifth in North America

With its Canadian offering Google joins Amazon Web Services (AWS), which has run a Canada-based region since 2016.

The new region could boost Google Cloud use, and cloud infrastructure in general, for Canadian businesses that have yet to make the switch.

Global Head of Solutions for Google Cloud Miles Ward said the new region will improve latency for Google Cloud’s Canadian customers.

“To be able to put this infrastructure into Montreal improves not just the performance in Montreal, but for all customers here in Canada,” said Ward.

Montreal-based company Pythian provides consultations and services for international companies, and CEO of Pythian, Paul Vallée, spoke of the advantages that the new cloud region brings to companies looking to build their North American presence.

“You don’t need to put in us-east1 anymore, you can put it right here (in Montreal) and still have access to the entire low latency dynamics, and to the entire North American economy which is I think something new and something really exciting.”

Making the switch to cloud

Google’s new region adds to Canada’s ongoing innovation in the cloud infrastructure arena. According to Forbes, Canada is a major player in the push towards public cloud strategies. The federal government recently released its plan to move all unclassified data to the cloud.

But some hesitation remains. Many business owners will be weighing whether the benefits outweigh the costs and effort to transition to cloud options.

For Ward, the public cloud is all about agility, efficiency and remaining competitive in an innovative market.

“The reality is that the efficiency of these centralized resources is orders of magnitude higher. As a result, the companies that are able to take advantage of those tools just are more agile — able to make choices more quickly with lower risk, able to operate at lower cost. The result is this is the opportunity of this generation to leapfrog their competitors, to outcompete and to operate on a global stage. “

Vallée stressed that the speed of cloud-based project work is the key advantage for businesses — and that this new method of storing and sharing work outmaneuvers old ways of defining success.

“A lot of companies need to adopt cloud because of a velocity or a business agility imperative. They’re adopting the technology in order to win by beating their competitors to market — not win by saving pennies, and not win through a more efficient capital structure, but win because you beat them there and you built it before they could.”

Google Cloud offers modern, AI-friendly option to businesses

Having a data centre located in Montreal could also sway businesses with concerns about data sovereignty or latency to embrace Google Cloud.

According to Vallée, the new region is just the latest reason businesses will want to get on board with Google for their public cloud services, over competitors like AWS or Microsoft Azure.

“They have differentiated in two major ways versus the other cloud vendors,” said Vallée. “The first one is they have a very simplified, platform-as-service-oriented cloud. That’s their roots, that’s their DNA. The other cloud platforms really started with infrastructure-as-a-service and started tacking on platform features after the fact.

“Whereas Google went the opposite route. Their Cloud started with Google apps for MyDomain and… they’ve been expanding that so that now they’re roughly comparable (to other vendors), but have very much a platform centre, which is a much more modern approach to cloud infrastructure.”

Vallée also sees a big bonus to companies looking to develop AI-related products and tools within Google Cloud.

“The other dynamic that I think is really important is Google is really a leader in machine learning, and has the most compelling demonstrations of their machine learning capability in terms of their road map. Google is, I think by general concensus, far in the lead in terms of their machine learning innovation, what with their Google Brain project and Google DeepMind intiative.

“And what we’re seeing coming out of Google Brain and Google DeepMind is all being built into the Google Cloud API support over time. Which means that for future proofing your cloud investment, if you are doing an analytics-oriented, data science-oriented, machine learning or AI-oriented adoption of the public cloud, Google is really a nicely differentiated platform to make that kind of investment on.”

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Microsoft to double the size of its Montreal AI lab

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Microsoft has announced it will double the size of its Montreal research lab over the next two years.

Once the work is complete, 75 skilled engineers will work at the facility under the leadership of new director Geoffrey Gordon, a renowned AI expert.

Worldwide AI hub

While at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella discussed the company’s investments in Canada with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In a news post, Microsoft acknowledged Montreal is becoming a “worldwide hub” for developments in AI and machine learning.

Microsoft is following several other major tech companies in stepping up its presence in the Montreal AI scene. Companies including Facebook and Samsung have recently opened new facilities in the city as it becomes one of the top global locations to source AI talent.

Microsoft said its expanded research lab will develop foundational AI systems that progress the fundamentals of the technology. This work will then help to build new Microsoft products for mainstream consumer and commercial use. Gordon’s background in both foundational and applied AI will enable the lab to work on a broad range of technologies for incorporation into Microsoft services.

“We want to be doing the research that will be infusing AI into Microsoft products today and tomorrow, and Geoff’s research really spans that,” said Jennifer Chayes, a Microsoft Research managing director and technical fellow.

AI that plans

One area the lab will focus on is the development of AI with long-term planning. AI currently struggles to combine actions into a logical plan for future execution. Although modern AI is adept at certain tasks, such as computer vision and voice recognition, it’s less capable of combining inputs, reasoning and then chaining different outcomes in response.

Microsoft’s already been working on developing new ways for AI to handle complex tasks. The additional resources available at the larger lab should enable new breakthroughs to be made in the field. This will help create smarter AI agents and information processors that have similar thought processes to humans.

With Microsoft as the latest company to invest in Montreal, Canada’s AI credentials are growing yet stronger. The company was welcomed by Navdeep Bains, Canada’s minister of innovation, science and economic development.

“I am pleased that our government’s investment and skills continues to position Canada as a world-leading destination for AI companies and impressive researchers like Geoff Gordon,” he said.

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Publicis Groupe partners with Microsoft to build new AI platform for 80,000 employees

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Satya Nadella
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (left) and Publicis Groupe CEO Arthur Sadoun announce AI partnership
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Publicis Groupe has announced it is partnering with Microsoft to create a “disruptive” AI platform to digitally transform its operations. The organization will define the platform’s architecture, with Microsoft then providing the tech to build it.

Called Marcel, Publicis Groupe intends the AI-powered network to achieve three main aims:

  • Curation of insights
  • Providing employees access to these insights
  • Connecting staff to boost problem solving.

Together, these tasks aim to deliver efficiency improvements to the company’s internal operations. Publicis Groupe currently employs more than 80,000 people who will use the new platform to connect with each other and organize information.

How it works:

Marcel will curate Publicis Groupe’s collective knowledge acquired through its business operations. This information will then be available to employees, allowing workers to access all the insights harvested by the company.

For example, an employee looking for info in one business might be shown an insight that was originally created in another operation. If it’s relevant to the task, Marcel will still present the data to the employee.

Marcel will also make individual connections between all 80,000 Publicis Groupe staff. This is intended to let employees access relevant support resources as and when they need them. As soon as a staff member encounters a problem, they could use Marcel to find an employee capable of providing immediate assistance.

Marcel to run on Azure

The platform is a sizeable initiative that Publicis Groupe believes will transform the way it operates. The design of the system is already being readied for Microsoft to implement using its cloud resources and AI capabilities. Marcel will run on Microsoft’s Azure cloud network with integrations into Office 365 for business insights.

“Marcel is a crucial step in Publicis Groupe’s commitment to radically change our industry, for the good of our clients and our people,” said Arthur Sadoun, Chairman and CEO of Publicis Groupe. “It’s why we’re thrilled to be able to draw on Microsoft’s ground-breaking talent, capabilities and resources in artificial intelligence, to build the platform of the future, today.

Publicis Groupe has been preparing Marcel’s architecture for several months. It first unveiled the platform last year while it was still in the design phase. The appointment of Microsoft as the project’s technical partner means Publicis Groupe is now progressing towards the introduction of Marcel to its employees and clients.

The finished solution will be developed over the next few months. Publicis Groupe and Microsoft will present it at the Viva Technology show in Paris in May.
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