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Artificial Intelligence in Canada: Past, Present, and Future

technology artifical intelligence background with face
technology artifical intelligence background with face
Richard Khoury

Richard Khoury

Associate Professor (Université Laval), President (CAIAC)


It is amazing to reflect on the role that Artificial Intelligence (AI) has taken on in our daily lives. Fantastic intelligent machines that, only a few years ago, solely existed in the imaginary futuristic worlds of science-fiction authors are commonplace conveniences for us today. We give verbal commands to intelligent assistants in our homes, phones and cars. A live videoconference call can be instantly captioned and translated into any language. Self-driving cars facilitate our daily commutes. And, invisible to us, our finances are being secured by fraud detection AIs, our health is being protected by medical diagnostic AIs, and every online service we use is being tailored to our needs by personalization AIs. What’s more amazing still is that every one of these AIs is at its core an application of the same technology, namely deep learning. And deep learning is a Canadian innovation!

Canada’s leadership position in AI today is neither a surprise nor a fluke. It is the result of decades of strategic efforts that began nearly 50 years ago. In the 1970s, AI researchers across our country organized themselves and formed the world’s first national AI organization, the predecessor of today’s Canadian Artificial Intelligence Association (CAIAC). During the “AI Winter” of the 1980s, while funding and interest for AI dwindled worldwide, Canada went counter-current and instead invested in CIFAR, a national institute dedicated to fostering high-quality research, which in turn created its “Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Society” program to support pioneering AI research programs. These initiatives placed Canada at the forefront of AI research when it was revitalized in the 1990s, a position we as a nation have worked hard to maintain ever since.

Thanks to these efforts, Canada has a thriving AI ecosystem today. Each of our nation’s three “AI hubs”, in Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton, is a global powerhouse. Edmonton is the world leader in game AI; the University of Alberta is the birthplace of Deep Stack, the first AI to defeat a professional poker player, and its alumni created AlphaGo, the first AI to defeat a world champion Go player. Toronto’s massive and diverse economy has allowed universities, research institutes, and business incubators to work together to market AI solutions, and consequently has the highest concentration of AI start-ups in the world. And Montreal, the city where modern deep learning was pioneered, is now home to over 100,000 AI specialists and researchers, the highest concentration in the world. But the Canadian AI advantage does not rest solely in these three hot spots, quite the opposite! AI research is thriving from coast to coast, from the breakthrough computer vision work fuelling the film industry in BC to the juggernaut data analytics sector of Nova Scotia leading the way in oceanic data analytics and machine learning.

Following our national AI strategy – the first of its kind in the world, thanks again to CIFAR – every year our federal and provincial governments invest millions of dollars in university research funding, salary aid, equipment, and corporate tax credits. These funds are used to recruit AI researchers and students, support research programs in universities and research centres, and facilitate the adoption of AI technologies in both established companies and start-ups. Canadian AI researchers also spearheaded the creation of the Montreal Declaration for Responsible Development of Artificial Intelligence, the first set of guidelines designed to foster AI research that is not only ground-breaking but also ethical, inclusive, democratic, and environmentally sustainable. And every year, researchers and students from all over our nation meet together at the Canadian Conference on Artificial Intelligence, organized by CAIAC, to share ideas and breakthroughs among peers and friends. With these initiatives in place, Canada is set to remain a leader in the AI world for years to come.

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