Blog: Cutting research into artificial intelligence is a blow against the future – Toronto Star
What doesn’t Premier Doug Ford get about the importance of investing in the knowledge economy?
Last week we learned that his government intends to cut $5 million in annual funding to the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Its important mission? Help turn stem cell discoveries into treatments for incurable diseases such as muscular dystrophy and osteoarthritis.
And this week the Star’s Kate Allen revealed the Ford government has now axed funding for two institutes that are credited with positioning Ontario and Canada at the forefront of research into artificial intelligence.
That is a specialty that attracts leading scientists to work here on projects that are making Canada a leader in a field that has applications from self-driving cars to facial recognition to revolutionizing how health care is delivered and diseases are diagnosed.
Their presence, in turn, attracts companies looking for solutions for their business challenges from AI research. And the result of all that activity creates thousands and thousands of new jobs.
Still, that good-news, good-news strategy didn’t stop the Ford government from cutting $20 million in funding the former Wynne government had promised to the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence and $4 million annually from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR).
These cuts are what we are, sadly, coming to expect from a government that does not listen to the experts or recognize the importance of scientific research to innovation and economic growth.
For example, the cuts to the AI institutes are completely contrary to advice given to the Ford government last year by the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity (another research organization that’s being axed).
In a 2018 report it warned: “It is imperative that the province stay ahead of the curve and support the research and development of this technology, so that we stay at the leading edge of AI innovation.”
No wonder then, that attendees at this week’s Collision Conference, a major tech gathering being held for the first time in Toronto, booed Ford over the cuts to AI research.
Especially galling was his promise to the audience that Ontario “is committed to standing with the tech sectors shoulder to shoulder.”
The fact is that generous and strategic investments from the previous Liberal Ontario government and the Trudeau government have been key to making Toronto a centre for AI research and investment.
Between 2012 and 2017, for example, more tech jobs were created in Toronto than in San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C., combined.
But the AI industry really took off in Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton after the federal government announced a $125-million Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy in its 2017 budget.
By 2018, according to the Vector Institute, more than $1 billion of AI and tech-related investments had been announced, which will result in the creation of 25,000 jobs across Canada.
Among the long list of companies that have located in Toronto alone in the past two years because of the city’s place as a leader in AI: Google Brain Toronto, Uber’s Advanced Technology Group, GM’s Canadian Technical Centre and Samsung’s AI Centre.
So why cut funding to the goose that is laying the proverbial golden egg?
According to Sarah Letersky, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade, the funds were cut so the government could get its “fiscal house in order … to deliver on our promise to make Ontario open for business, and open for jobs.”
If that is truly the goal, shouldn’t the Ford government be investing more in the Vector Institute and CIFAR?
In short, if these cuts are really about being careful with taxpayer dollars and wrestling down the deficit, they should be reversed.
The research these institutes are conducting promises to enrich not only this province — but the world.