Skip to main content
Artificial intelligence promises to transform how we live and work, and a new research institute in Toronto aims to re-establish Canada's place as a global hub for machine learning.

The launch of the Vector Institute last week is the latest in a series of public and private partnerships and investments around AI in Canada, including the RBC-supported NextAI accelerator program and a new Google office focused on AI development.

University of Toronto professor Geoffrey Hinton—known internationally for his work on neural networks—is the chief scientific advisor to the Vector Institute, and it was his groundbreaking research that helped kick-start the AI renaissance half a decade ago.

The AI pioneer was one of a small group of scientists at Canadian universities that kept the dream of machine learning alive when previous cycles of AI hype went bust. “It’s people in Canada who made it work,” Hinton said. “For 50 years, people in AI said this is nonsense, you’ll never make this work. Now that it works, they’re saying AI is great.”

AI’s possibilities are vast. In healthcare, AI programs are already helping doctors identify cancer and other anomalies on MRI and x-ray results. In business, customer service chatbots are helping book trips and resolve online disputes. And learning algorithms are already trading equities and optimizing portfolios at banks like RBC.

That explains the gold rush in AI: startups in the field raised US$5 billion last year, nearly 10 times the total for 2012. Despite Canada’s early lead in AI research, much of that money—and the brains behind AI—has gone south. Efforts are underway to reverse some of the tide.

On Thursday, University of Toronto president Meric Gertler compared the Vector Institute to the U.S. government’s early investments in what later became the Internet. “Its significance could not be understood at the time,” he said. “Today’s announcement represents a similar opportunity to drive innovation, job creation and long-term growth in Canada.”

The Vector Institute launch followed the March 22 federal budget, in which Ottawa announced $125 million for its Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, some of which will support the institute.

Hinton himself joined California-based Google in 2013, becoming, at 64, the company’s oldest intern. Yann LeCun, a French researcher who did post-graduate work in Canada, was hired by Facebook to run its AI lab. University of Alberta professor Richard Sutton taught a cohort of students that went on to help build AlphaGo, the Google AI that has become unbeatable at the 2,500-year-old Chinese game of intuition and strategy. And Microsoft has now added University of Montreal professor Yoshua Bengio as an advisor after snapping up natural language processing startup Maluuba to boost its AI efforts.

How to halt the brain drain? Hinton said the best researchers have a few basic demands: access to vast amounts of data, enough time to pursue research ideas that might not work out, and to be surrounded by others with similar goals. “What the Vector Institute is going to give us is a big concentration of really good researchers with access to data and plenty of time to do research,” he said.

Earlier this year, RBC became one of the core sponsors for the NextAI accelerator program for AI entrepreneurs. The first cohort of 20 teams was finalized in early March. Last October, RBC opened the doors of its RBC Research in Machine Learning Lab, led by researcher and entrepreneur Foteini Agrafioti.

“The opportunities for new discoveries in the field of deep learning are very exciting, and the applications are endless,” Hinton said in the release announcing the launch of the institute.

John Stackhouse and Peter Henderson contributed to this piece.