Blog: Ford government slashes funding to research institutes focused on artificial intelligence – Toronto Star
The Ford government has axed provincial funding for two institutes credited with positioning Ontario and Canada at the forefront of artificial intelligence research — a field the government’s own prosperity think tank says must be supported if the province wants to remain competitive and create jobs in a booming technology sector.
The Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade cut $20 million from the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence and $4 million annually from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), which supports a hub of AI-focused computer scientists. Both draw funding from the federal government and other sources and say they will adjust programming or operations.
A prosperity think tank funded by the ministry concluded in a report last year that Ontario has a “rich AI ecosystem led by some of the world’s best AI scientists and business thinkers,” thanks in part to early investment in basic research. The report cited the Vector Institute as an attractor of high-profile talent to the region.
The report’s key recommendation: “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.”
The think tank that issued the report, the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity, was itself axed by the government and closed its doors last week after 18 years. It was the research arm of a task force created by then premier Mike Harris in 2001 and was designed to examine policies that could help Ontario become more competitive.
“In order to protect what matters most and get Ontario back on track, we need to get our fiscal house in order. That’s exactly what we’re doing, while continuing to deliver on our promise to make Ontario open for business, and open for jobs.”
CIFAR describes its mission as bringing together extraordinary thinkers to address questions critical to science and humanity. It supports research programs on child brain development, quantum computing, the molecular origins of life, and more. The ministry, under the previous Liberal government, signed an agreement with CIFAR in 2018 to provide $4 million a year for five years; CIFAR received the first $4-million instalment last year but won’t receive the rest. CIFAR is also funded by the federal government, universities and the private sector.
CIFAR is often heralded for nurturing a handful of Canadian computer scientists who created neural networks, a type of machine learning that now underpins today’s successes in artificial intelligence and is responsible for AI’s enormous market potential.
“Without CIFAR, Canada would not be a leader in global AI research and I would never have moved here,” said Geoffrey Hinton, one of the “godfathers” of artificial intelligence. Hinton is a longtime CIFAR fellow and the chief scientific adviser of the Vector Institute.
“CIFAR played a critical role in supporting my work and deserves credit for funding many of Canada’s biggest breakthroughs in artificial intelligence research. Providing adequate resources for basic curiosity-driven research is essential for attracting and retaining leading researchers here in Canada. It was essential in establishing Canada’s position as a world leader in AI, and it remains the key to driving Canada’s future leadership in this field.”
Yoshua Bengio, a professor of computer science at the Université de Montréal and another AI pioneer and CIFAR fellow, said “CIFAR has made it possible to have the kind of thriving AI hubs we currently enjoy in Canada, along with the associated industrial ecosystems, which are positioning Canada as an international leader in AI.”
“I am thus truly saddened by the news that the Ontario government is cutting its funding for CIFAR.”
A spokesperson for CIFAR said “we continue to have a positive relationship with the government of Ontario.
“We had anticipated this possibility and have adjusted our operations accordingly.”
The Vector Institute was launched in 2017 to capitalize on Ontario and Toronto’s leadership in AI and stem the “brain drain” to Silicon Valley and elsewhere in the United States. Its mission is to drive excellence in the knowledge and use of AI and to foster economic growth and improve the lives of Canadians. It is also supported by the federal government and private sector sponsors.
The cuts to Vector came from a $30-million program announced by the Liberal government in 2017 that was designed to develop the AI workforce in Toronto by growing the number of graduates with advanced degrees in the field. Vector received $10 million from the program last year but will not receive the remaining $20 million. (The province also provided $50 million to establish the Vector Institute in 2017.)
Garth Gibson, Vector’s president and CEO, called Ontario “an important partner.”
He added, “We’ve seen a reduction in line with (the) province’s imperative to eliminate deficits and the resulting year-over-year change for that ministry. This will not affect jobs at Vector, but it has caused us to sharpen the focus of our programming.”
CIFAR and Vector are the second and third research institutes in the past few days that the Star revealed have lost their provincial funding. The Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which supports research dedicated to translating stem cell discoveries into treatments for victims of incurable illnesses, learned its funding would not be renewed after its $5 million in annual provincial support ends next year. OIRM hopes to find other sources of funding to remain open.
One OIRM researcher had received a $100,000 grant to pursue treatment for extremely premature babies with lung damage. Critics contrasted the loss of that funding to a program the Ontario government announced last week that will give $100,000 to “Hats for Hides,” which encourages hunters to trade in unwanted animal pelts for a hat or decorative crest.
Kate Allen is a Toronto-based reporter covering science and technology. Follow her on Twitter: @katecallen