Canada 'lost the lead' on artificial intelligence. Here's how Toronto will get it back

Thanks to a cash infusion from two levels of government and the private sector, Toronto and Canada are back in the ring to re-take "dominance" in artificial intelligence.

Vector Institute will open in permanent space by end of year thanks to government and private cash

Thanks to a public and private cash infusion, a new artificial intelligence institute is opening in Toronto. (Reuters)

With artificial intelligence set to transform our world, a new institute is putting Toronto to the front of the line to lead the charge.

The Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, made possible by funding from the federal government revealed in the 2017 budget, will move into new digs in the MaRS Discovery District by the end of the year.

There, scientists will aim to attract and retain top global talent while working on software that mimics — and may one day surpass — human intelligence.

Vector's funding comes partially from a $125 million investment announced in last Wednesday's federal budget to launch a pan-Canadian artificial intelligence strategy, with similar institutes being established in Montreal and Edmonton.

'I think this truly is Canada’s moment and we would be foolish not to take advantage of it,' said Canadian Institute for Advanced Research CEO and president Dr. Alan Bernstein. (CIFAR)

Ontario is also investing, announcing an addition $50 million in funding, as are corporations big and small — including Google.

"[A.I.] cuts across pretty well every sector of the economy," said Dr. Alan Bernstein, CEO and president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, the organization tasked with administering the federal program.

"Silicon Valley and England and other places really jumped on it, so we kind of lost the lead a little bit. I think the Canadian federal government has now realized that," he said.

Stopping up the brain drain

Critical to the strategy's success is building a homegrown base of A.I. experts and innovators — a problem in the last decade, despite pioneering work on so-called "Deep Learning" by Canadian scholars such as Yoshua Bengio and Geoffrey Hinton, a former University of Toronto professor who will now serve as Vector's chief scientific advisor. 

With few university faculty positions in Canada and with many innovative companies headquartered elsewhere, it has been tough to keep the few graduates specializing in A.I. in town.

"We were paying to educate people and shipping them south," explained Ed Clark, chair of the Vector Institute and business advisor to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.

Clark believes the Vector Institute's "unique model" will be a powerful draw.

The model involves working closely with universities, receiving funding from the government, and seeing investment and collaboration with businesses.

With the proliferation of devices and the dominance of tech giants like Google and Apple, Canada has temporarily 'lost the lead' in artificial intelligence, says Bernstein. (iStockphoto)

Artificial intelligence research can be applied to a vast array of fields, including medicine, helping doctors spot diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's earlier, and agriculture, automating farm work and helping farmers plant strategically.

The option to do pure research or work with companies, along with competitive salaries and Canadian amenities, should be enough to clinch A.I. talent, hopes Bernstein.

"We now have considerable resources to keep those people here," he said, predicting "fantastic science" coming out of Toronto in the next 5-10 years as a result.

The Vector Institute currently inhabits temporary quarters in the MaRS Discovery District. They'll move to a permanent location in the district by the end of 2017. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

Money, money, money

The existence of that "fantastic science" will lean heavily on how much buy-in Vector and Canada's other two A.I. centres get.

Toronto's portion of the $125 million is a "great start," said Bernstein, but taken alone, "it's not enough money."

"My estimate of the right amount of money to make a difference is a half a billion or so, and I think we will get there," he said.

Clark said that so far, Vector's finances are looking promising.

Ed Clark believes artificial intelligence will dramatically alter Ontario's economy, making firms more efficient and increasing productivity. (Jon Pushnik)

"We're getting $90 million from the two levels of government, and I think we'll get at least $80 million from businesses, or north of that," said Clark.

The hope is that investment from the government and from companies will continue to grow into the future, giving Toronto and Canada a chance to retake "dominance" in what Clark describes as "the most significant technological change over the next twenty years."