Canada has quietly become a leader in artificial intelligence. And much of it is thanks to certain funding structures and the research talent pool at Canadian universities.
"When it didn't seem like a relevant research direction, Canada … was still pushing on and seeing where we could take it," says Michael Bowling, a researcher at the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
Though Canadian researchers in general have struggled with access to funding, the story is different for artificial intelligence (AI). When many other countries were not pursuing this field because it was not deemed commercially lucrative, AI researchers in Canada were able to access funding for projects viewed as valuable based on their future potential.
“We’ve been working on [AI] for the last 15 years and now the rest of the world is paying attention and saying ‘Wow, this stuff actually works,”’ explains Dr. Bowling, adding that it has taken some forethought in funding to allow Canada to become a world leader in AI.
“The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council [NSERC], they have this model in their discovery grants of curiositydriven research,” Dr. Bowling says, "which means not having to say, ‘I have this industry partner that wants to take this technology and do something in the next year or two.’ Instead you can say, ‘I want to explore this because I think it might be important in the future.’ " In recent years, Microsoft and Google parent Alphabet Inc. set up their own AI research centres in Montreal, and last year Facebook followed suit by announcing its AI lab, FAIR Montreal, which will be headed up by Joelle Pineau, a computer science professor at McGill University.
Toronto is also a major centre for AI research, which makes sense when you consider the country’s history in the field.
University of Toronto artificial-intelligence researcher Geoffrey Hinton is internationally regarded as one of the pioneers for his work on deep learning, and his research stretches back over decades.
Other companies that are planning or have set up AI centres in major Canadian cities include Adobe Systems Inc., NVIDIA Corp., Uber Technologies, Thales SA and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., Fujitsu Ltd. and LG Electronics Inc.
Canada is considered a leader in AI, but our future role depends on the continuation of private and public funding and government support. It’s worth noting that Canadian startups receive only a fraction of the investment dollars compared to the funds received by their American counterparts.
So far, the future remains bright for Canadian AI research, especially with the federal government’s $125-million PanCanadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy announced last year. Intended to foster collaboration between researchers in Toronto, Waterloo, Montreal and Edmonton, the hope is to attract more international AI investors to Canada.