Artificial intelligence (AI) is a key component of the next industrial revolution. It has the possibility to change the way we live, work and interact with the world around us. As the possibilities in commercial applications of AI increase, the race for global AI differentiation intensifies. Countries compete to attract funding for AI ventures, retain top talent, increase research output and industrial adoption of AI. In this global AI competition, government are increasing funding to boost their AI ecosystems. In 2017, Canada awarded $125 million in initial investments to CIFAR to create and implement a pan-Canadian AI strategy. Canada was the first country to release a national AI strategy. Three years later, with help from Accenture, CIFAR sought to measure the results of this strategy. How did the CIFAR’s pan-Canadian AI strategy change the AI landscape?

Startups and enterprises are benefitting

Direct foreign Investments in Information Technology and Communications grew 50% from 2017 to 2019. This includes over 45 companies that have invested in AI research labs in Canada. As a result, this growing AI ecosystem is helping innovative startups get the support and investments they require to grow. Total investments in AI start-ups exceeded $600 millions in 2019 This is 2.3 times what AI startups received in 2017.

A vibrant AI ecosystem has emerged from CIFAR's Pan-Canadian AI Strategy. The number of active AI startups exceeded 620 in 2019, and since 2017, 34 start-ups have been acquired. In the past decade, 11 IPOs have been filed.

Canadian enterprises are greatly benefiting. Companies that have acquired these AI start-ups have augmented their internal capabilities. Enterprises have also reaped the benefits of increased business use cases for AI and the new opportunities for commercialization. The number of Canadian companies that are integrating AI is also increasing. In our recent research Fast-Track to Future-ready, 54% of Canadian companies surveyed indicated that they have adopted AI at some level within their companies.

Making headway in the war for talent

Amii, Mila and the Vector Institute have invested in attracting and retaining world class AI pioneers. Four of the 10 most influential machine learning researchers in the world currently lead or work at the Canadian AI Institutes. As countries compete to attract skilled AI workers, the Canadian AI ecosystem has succeeded in attracting a highly skilled talent pool by developing a globally recognized brand through its institutes and by creating jobs through the commercialization of AI. From 2015 to 2019, Canada has moved up 20 spots to the 4th position on the AI skills migration index – which measured the migration flow of AI talent between 55 countries.

Canada has also attracted and retained top AI research talent through CIFAR’s AI Chairs program. 109 world leading researchers currently work in Canada, including Turing award winners. This investment in AI education has paid-off. In 2019, more than 1200 trainees were supervised in advanced AI programs at the Canadian institutes. This increases the pool of talent for Canadian Enterprises and AI startups.

Leading AI research

Between 1996 and 2019, Canada has published 23 000 AI research documents, including 2054 in 2019 alone. Our country ranks 4th among 239 countries in SCOPUS’s global H-index, which measures scientific journal output in terms of productivity and applicable scientific impact.

The current structure of the Canadian AI ecosystem has provided the ability to collaborate easily within a niche subject-matter area (e.g. deep learning and reinforcement learning). This structure is backed by the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy, Amii, Mila, the Vector Institute and CIFAR’s AI Chairs.

Through the AI chairs leading program, Canada has attracted and retained top AI research talent. 109 world leading AI researchers currently work in Canada’s AI institutes. Among them, is deep learning pioneer Yoshua Bengio, founder of Quebec’s AI institute Mila. Mila develops world renowned expertise in AI for health, deep learning and responsible AI. With a Quebec AI startup ecosystem valued at over $ 9 billion and Montreal ranking 5th most affordable talent pool, Quebec attracts a large amount of VC funding. Between 2017 and 2018, VC investments increased by 133%.

Another AI chair Richard Sutton, world leader in reinforcement learning, is the Chief Scientist at the Alberta Machine Learning Institute (AMII). An entire AI ecosystem in Alberta was born from his research. This has attracted foreign investment, improved computer science education and changed the technology ecosystem of the province. Alberta’s technology hub has also grown exponentially with Amii’s increased partnerships with notable industry leaders to commercialize AI.

AI for good

As Applied Intelligence's global outreach penetrates the multi-disciplinary spectrum, Canada’s adoption of socially focused AI initiatives has also increased. Canada ranks 5th in the publication of social and welfare related AI content and has published over 500 research papers on the subject since 2017.

With over 84,000 open data sets, Canada ranked first among 30 countries in OpenData’s barometer assessment in 2018. This large amount of crime, health and census datasets can be used by researchers and companies to develop diverse social solutions. Our country has seen important progress in the social applications of AI in numerous settings.

CIFAR, AMII, Mila and the Vector Institute prioritize the use of AI for positive social impact across several common causes, including health and the environment. Over the years, Canada has demonstrated its commitment to social issues by actively promoting AI in these key sectors.

Health and Welfare – Canada is a leader in AI health research and its development of AI applications is rapidly growing. In 2019, CIFAR funded 14 research projects in the fight against COVID-19. There are great examples of AI use cases in healthcare in Canada.

University Health network researchers developed a radiotherapy planning system that generates high quality treatment plans faster, and at lower costs than current manual or automated methods. In Intensive Care Units, a predict risk model is used to make medical assessments and predict when a patient should be transferred to the ICU. Although the implementation of AI in healthcare is growing, Canada needs to increase applications in this sector quickly and strategically or risk losing its advantage.

Education – AI for society is now part of the curriculum at many Canadian computer science programs. CIFAR and the Osmo foundation also run the AI4Good summer lab, a machine learning bootcamp where participants develop AI prototypes for social good. The program aims to inspire a next generation of diverse technical leaders to develop AI as a force for social good.

Deploying AI, Responsibly

As AI decisions increasingly impacts people’s life ats scale, it becomes critical to consider matters of fairness, accountability, human-centricity, ethics, transparency, and security when developing AI. Canada has demonstrated its strong commitment towards responsible AI adoption since the CIFAR Pan Canadian AI strategy has been deployed. A Global Partnership on AI (GPAI) was created in June 2018 between Canada and 14 other countries during the G7 summit. This was the first global entity of its kind and the stakeholders pledged to support responsible and human-centric development and use of AI.

The Montréal Declaration on Responsible Development of Artificial Intelligence was also launched in December 2018. This set of ethical guidelines for the development of AI is recognized globally as one of the top high-profile initiatives for responsible AI. Two years later, Mila and Algora Lag (University of Montreal) led a global consultation on the ethics of AI for UNESCO, leveraging their experiencing in developing the Montreal declaration.

Responsible AI takes centre stage across the provinces to permeate initiatives that are closer to home. Our country published Canada’s Digital Charter in 2019 with the goal of building a foundation of trust for Canadians in the digital arena. The charter provides assurance that Canadians can trust new digital technologies and that their data and privacy remain safe.

Next steps in AI

The $125 million invested in creating the Pan Canadian AI strategy, the world’s first of its kind, has proven that strategic and timely government funding can accelerate growth in this key sector. Amplified by funding from the provinces and foreign investments, this strategy changed the Canadian technology landscape and solidified Canada's position in the global race for AI.

The pandemic has accelerated the need to integrate AI in all facets of our lives, responsibly. As AI use cases grow, it is now critical to increase funding to develop commercial applications of AI in Canada. In its 2021 budget, the Canadian government announced CAD $ 443.8 million in federal funding to support the Pan Canadian AI Strategy for the next 10 years. Clearly signaling that Canada intends to keep its first mover advantage, as other countries implement their own AI strategies. The assessment of the 2017 Pan Canadian AI strategy was instrumental in obtaining the additional funding.

Thomas Kim

Analytics and AI Leader


Steven Rogers

Tech Strategy and Advisory Leader


Tali Remennik

Data Scientist


Nick Taylor

Tech Strategy & Advisory

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