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Canada’s AI Vision: Q&A with the Executive Director of the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy

AI Canada globe_CIFAR
AI Canada globe_CIFAR
Elissa Strome_CIFAR

Elissa Strome

Executive Director of the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy at CIFAR

What is Canada’s national AI strategy? Why does it matter? And where can Canadians find out more? Elissa Strome of CIFAR has the answers.

Canada has a solid claim as the birthplace of modern artificial intelligence (AI). Work starting in the ’80s, by Canadian researchers like Geoffrey Hinton and Richard Sutton laid the foundation for the neural networks and deep learning models now deeply embedded in all aspects of contemporary life.

Since 1982, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) has been bringing experts together to address the most complex and important questions in science, and was an early supporter of AI research. In 2017 when CIFAR was asked by the Government of Canada to lead the world’s first national AI strategy, CIFAR was up for the challenge. Elissa Strome is the Executive Director of the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy at CIFAR.


Conversations about artificial intelligence often get bogged down in competing definitions of the term. What do you mean when you say AI?

Strome: AI is a computational approach to examining, understanding, and interpreting very large amounts of data in order to be able to discern patterns and make recommendations. Anywhere there’s a very large body of data that can’t be understood by a single human being, a body of data that’s too complex, too large, too broad for typical statistical approaches, that’s where machine learning is very, very effective.

AI is ubiquitous in our lives today. It has been developed and adopted as a technology to inform so many things that we do in our everyday actions. Things as simple as navigating traffic or translating text. And things as high-stakes as managing the electricity grid or diagnosing illness.


What is the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy?

When the strategy was first launched five years ago, we focused on two objectives: creating really rich, diverse, robust AI ecosystems across Canada; and building a deep pool of talented individuals with AI skills and expertise. We wanted to make sure that we were retaining the great researchers that we have in Canada while also training the next generation of AI researchers. Today we boast 119 Canada CIFAR AI Chairs at Amii in Edmonton, Mila in Montreal, and the Vector Institute in Toronto. In turn, they are training the next generation of emerging talents.

As we head into the second phase of the strategy, which began this year, we can’t take our foot off the gas pedal on those things, but we want to also think hard about ensuring the AI we produce is responsible. We look for where AI can have a positive social impact on Canada and the world, while minimizing harms. We’re working to understand from a social sciences perspective, from a policy, legal, ethical, and economic perspective, how AI is impacting society. Central to this is a strategic priority on increasing and advancing equity, diversity, and inclusion in AI.


How can Canadians learn more?

AI is increasingly impacting all of our lives, so it’s important that all Canadians should have at least a basic understanding of how it works and what its impacts are and will be in their lives. That’s why CIFAR has just opened public access to Destination AI, a fully bilingual, free online course for Canadians. When you complete the course, which takes about six hours, you get a certificate that you can show your teachers or employers. But what’s more important is that you’ll get an understanding of what the capabilities of AI are, what some of the risks and the challenges are, and also where the opportunities for this technology lie, looking into the future. AI is fast-moving technology that is without a doubt here to stay in all our lives, and each one of us needs to understand its impacts.

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