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Government renews, increases support for CIFAR, invests in AI Strategy

Alan BernsteinIn the federal budget last month, there were two pieces of good news for CIFAR. First, Ottawa renewed and increased its support for CIFAR from $25 million to $35 million over five years (the first increase in 15 years). Second, the government announced it would invest $125 million in a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence (AI) Strategy to be developed and implemented by CIFAR. It’s a far-sighted decision to ensure that Canada retains, trains and attracts top research talent in deep learning, the most powerful form of AI, developed by CIFAR Distinguished Fellow Geoff Hinton and his colleagues. The Strategy will also support research and policy outreach on the economic and labour market disruptions predicted by the advent of AI, and is designed to provide a strong foundation of research excellence to make sure that all Canadians benefit from the AI revolution.

The Pan-Canadian AI Strategy is a direct consequence of the fundamental values that form the basis for CIFAR’s approach to research and scholarship: breakthrough advances occur when exceptional people, independent of country or discipline, are encouraged to come together to follow their own interests and passions and ask fundamental questions about the most challenging and complex questions facing humanity. 

CIFAR recruited Geoff Hinton to Canada in the 1980s because Fraser Mustard, CIFAR’s first president, recognized Geoff’s exceptional scientific talent. Several years later, CIFAR created a new program led by Hinton that would attempt to instruct computers how to ‘learn,’ based loosely on our understanding of how the brain learns. The result was the breakthrough now known as deep learning. Today, deep learning and related machine learning techniques have revolutionized AI. Applications of deep learning span everything from smart cars to medical diagnostics to agriculture to finance to science itself. And the members of CIFAR’s program in Learning in Machines and Brains, now co-directed by two other stars of the AI field, Yoshua Bengio (Université de Montréal) and Yann LeCun (NYU and Facebook), either are senior advisors or head up AI at Google, Facebook, Baidu, Microsoft, and Apple. Various consulting firms have estimated the market for AI at between $40 and $70 billion US.

Canada’s leadership in the science of AI is a clear example of the importance of investing in fundamental research. We know, however, that although excellence in fundamental science is frequently a necessary prerequisite for innovation, by itself it is not sufficient. Established companies, as well as start up and scale up ventures, have to provide the pull that turns good ideas into products that the marketplace wants. What has been so encouraging is the enthusiasm that companies, VC firms, pension funds and others are willing to invest in AI. In addition, Canadian trainees have developed an entrepreneurial streak that previously has been lacking in this country. Within two weeks of the $125 million federal announcement, the provinces of Ontario and Quebec announced they would provide $50 million and $100 million, respectively, alongside the federal funds and private sector funds of about $100 million, to support AI institutes in Montreal and Toronto. I hope Alberta will follow suit shortly.  

This enthusiasm by both levels of government and the private sector is founded on the conviction that AI promises to be a truly disruptive technology, on the scale of the internal combustion engine or the silicon chip. AI will give rise to new businesses, improve the efficiency of old ones, and will revolutionize government services, transportation, healthcare, and every other sector of the economy.

Funding for the Pan-Canadian Strategy will be used to support three AI research centres – one in Edmonton, one in Montreal, and one that has just been announced in Toronto, the Vector Institute. The money will also create Canada CIFAR Chairs in AI Research, expand the pipeline of graduate students training in AI, expand the Summer and Winter Schools that CIFAR has been running in AI, and fund research into the societal implications of AI science.

Readers familiar with CIFAR will recognize that the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy takes us into new territory as an organization in which our historic role in the global research landscape is now changed and expanded beyond convening researchers from around the world. But as CIFAR’s board discussed at its February meeting, the essence of the AI Strategy is what we have always done: identifying exceptional researchers, training the next generation of scientists and researchers and ensuring that the new knowledge generated by our fellows ­– and now also chair holders – is made available to the people that can use it most effectively.

Budget 2017 also included an increase of $10 million over five years in our grant from Ottawa. This important increase will allow us to launch a new workshop program to explore new ideas and encourage new discussions amongst a broader group of exceptional researchers, and to expand our pilot Catalyst Fund program that will fund time-limited high risk/high impact collaborative projects between two or more CIFAR fellows.

We’ve just been informed that the ()(FRQ) that they will also be providing $750,000 per year for the next five years, a significant sign of confidence in CIFAR and our important role in Quebec. And we continue to receive support from Ontario and British Columbia. I’ve also been gratified by the private sector support we’ve received, including  the support we receive from the Azrieli Foundation and the Brain Canada Foundation. This private sector support  accounts for a large part of our funding and will continue to be vital for our mission. I’m grateful for the confidence our donors place in us. 

In summary, the federal budget is recognition by the government of Canada of the importance of research excellence at the very highest level, that great research is the fuel that drives the engine of innovation, and the importance of bringing together exceptional researchers from Canada and around the world to address some of the most important questions of our time.

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CIFAR is a registered charitable organization supported by the governments of Canada, Alberta and Quebec, as well as foundations, individuals, corporations and Canadian and international partner organizations.

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