Saturday, 14 January 2017

Artificial Intelligence in Canada

On Saturday January 14, Canada's National Newspaper, the Globe and Mail, published an opinion piece arguing that the areas of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) were important technologies today, and that Canada should create a national AI Institute. All well and good, except that the article was Toronto-centric and ignored the reality that there are several outstanding AI/ML groups in Canada. Needless to say, the article generated negative feedback from the major AI groups in Canada, including the University de Montreal, University of British Columbia, and, of course, the University of Alberta.

When I first read the opinion piece, I was livid. I decided to write a rebuttal to the Globe and Mail. After writing a longer piece that expressed what I really thought (for the therapeutic value), I then edited it down into a short letter that was more politically correct. Below is the article that appeared today.

Please look at the graphic that follows (referenced in the article but not printed). It shows that the University of Alberta is proudly ranked third in the world in this area. Note also that the size of our research team is smaller, and in some cases considerably smaller, than our peers.

I am proud that we have been able to build a world class AI/ML research team at the University of Alberta.

Globe and Mail, Saturday January 14.
AI Institute? Think national

Re AI Is The Future, And Canada Must Seize It (Report on Business, Jan. 7):

Canada has a rich history of research into artificial intelligence (AI), going back more than 40 years. Globally, we punch well above our weight. For example, in the areas of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the Computer Science Rankings site places the University of Alberta third, the University of Toronto seventh, and includes three other Canadian universities in the top 50.

Two machine-learning areas that are generating the most excitement today, deep learning (Geoffrey Hinton) and reinforcement learning (Richard Sutton), were pioneered by Canadian academics.

The article’s authors assert that “We must build a world-leading AI Institute in Toronto.” Why Toronto? The authors, who extol the virtues of Toronto to the exclusion of the excellence elsewhere in Canada, call for a “very significant funding commitment” to build the AI Institute. What about the recent federal government investment of $93-million directed to the Université de Montréal for machine-learning research?

As a Torontonian now working at the University of Alberta, I am acutely sensitive to the “Toronto-is-the-centre-of-the-world” syndrome. A Toronto-based AI Institute would be a way to solve a University of Toronto problem that its “machine-learning researchers are spread across many departments in disparate buildings already at capacity.” There is not much that is of national benefit in that.

Jonathan Schaeffer, dean, Faculty of Science, University of Alberta; Fellow of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning rankings from

1 comment:

  1. Good rebuttal Jonathan. I notice that there seems to be a BIG recent push by the "Toronto" media for the establishment for a Canadian Centre in AI research in Toronto. While I can easily support the initiative to build such a Canadian Centre, its location must be result of an open, fair competition that takes into account the location of the existing excellence. I would hope that if such a competition does occur that the UA would present a very strong and compelling case for the Centre to be built here.