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When Canada was falling behind in 'the race to build thinking computers'

In the mid-1980s, young Canadians who wanted to study artificial intelligence had to leave home to do that.

'Canada has the brains, but they're isolated from each other and dwindling'

Is Canada falling behind on AI research?

37 years ago
2:01
In September 1984, The National looked at where Canada stood in "the race to build thinking computers." 2:01

George McLean's introduction summed up the problem succinctly.

"Many of the world's leading mathematicians and computer scientists are working on what's called the fifth generation project — the design of computers that can think for themselves," he told viewers watching The National on Sept. 22, 1984.

"Some of these researchers are Canadians, but increasingly, Canada is being left behind in the race to build thinking computers."

Thinking computers? It seemed The National was describing what we would call artificial intelligence today.

'Computers that will think like we do'

Eve Savory's report suggested Canada needed to do more if it wanted to keep talented young people working in the field of artificial intelligence in their home country. (The National/CBC Archives)

Reporter Eve Savory further described this "fifth generation of computers," telling viewers that they were "computers that will think like we do, sense the world around them, use logic and experience to make decisions and even carry the decisions out."

Savory said Japan, Britain and the United States were roaring ahead in this emerging field, while Canada was losing ground — in part because its homegrown computer scientists were being compelled to study away from home because of the opportunities elsewhere.

"Canada has the brains, but they're isolated from each other and dwindling, drawn abroad by better opportunities and better dollars than Canada can offer," she said. 

"And those opportunities and dollars are getting tighter."

Better opportunities elsewhere

Mark Drummond was among the young computer scientists who were going abroad to study who talked to The National about their reasons for doing so in 1984. (The National/CBC Archives)

To illustrate the point, Savory introduced three students who were about to leave Calgary to attend graduate school in other countries.

Mark Drummond was headed to the University of Edinburgh, for example.

"I couldn't study what I wanted to study in Canada," he told CBC News.

"There was no university faculty or department which taught the kind of computer assignment — well, artificial intelligence — that I wanted to take."

'A critical mass of minds' needed

NSERC President Gordon MacNabb said steps had been taken to improve research opportunities in Canada, but he said there was a danger of seeing those gains erode. (The National/CBC Archives)

Dr. Gordon MacNabb, the founding president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, said efforts had been made to improve research opportunities in Canada, but acknowledged "we're in danger now of that environment eroding again, just at the wrong time, just when there are exciting things to do in fifth-generation computing." 

Savory said the students she spoke to all hoped to return home after completing their graduate studies.

"But the key element in artificial intelligence is a critical mass of minds and unless Canada can offer that, they, too, may end up working abroad," said Savory.

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