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How Canada has become one of the largest global players in artificial intelligence

How Canada has become one of the largest global players in artificial intelligence

 In Canada, the governance of the digital revolution takes the form of a strategic commitment at all levels of government, with targeted investments, public-private partnerships, development guidelines for the future and attention to the impact of technology on society. An example to guide the fourth industrial revolution towards growth and equity.

by Federico Scognamiglio,
Data Science student at the University of Padua

In the 21st century, the potential of digital technologies has grown enormously. Innovation has entered every sphere of life and the economy. Every day we wear artificial clothes, we live in connected cities, we move thanks to technology and doctors save lives with artificial tools.

The human dimension and the artificial dimension are now so closely related that it is not always possible to distinguish where the first ends and the second begins.


The digital revolution: a global challenge

Technology has placed man in front of a new challenge in what has been called the fourth industrial revolution.

How far can we go? How will we move and which direction to take?

How to ensure that technological progress, environmental sustainability and fair economic growth coexist in harmony?

Thanks to the huge amount of information potentially extractable from the data we produce, the Big data revolution is radically changing not only the way we perform daily activities, but the processes through which human beings create new cognitive wealth.

It is a global challenge, which can only be partially met within national boundaries. Citizens, businesses and politics are all involved in a digital revolution with totally new rules compared to the past and in which the advantages and risks are not yet fully revealed.

The potential expressed by the data revolution does not only concern the various disciplines and industrial sectors in which they are applied. Technological innovation, and in particular artificial intelligence, is primarily committed to providing answers in terms of strategy and tools for present governance and above all for future developments.

The majority of the most advanced states in the world have therefore begun to outline national and supranational strategies, setting themselves objectives, defining value frameworks and allocating resources for the research and development of artificial intelligence systems.

Canada is undoubtedly one of the pioneering states in establishing a direction.

How Canada has become one of the largest global players in artificial intelligence

Thanks to the attention dedicated to the sector and a concentration of Machine Learning technologies researchers among the highest in the world (about 9000 students in the branch of artificial intelligence), Canada is today one of the most important global reference points for artificial intelligence.


The primacy of the Pan-Canadian strategy for Artificial Intelligence

Among the tools that have enabled Canada to achieve this position is the Pan-Canadian AI strategy [1].

It is a pragmatic and integrated governance strategy that reflects the recommendations of the consultations indicated by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR)[2], an important research center founded in the mid-twentieth century by the Canadian government, which boasts more than 400 international researchers also attracted by the global skills strategy[3] that facilitates the entry of talents into Canadian territory.

CIFAR has been able since 1982 to propose a program called “Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Society”[4], presenting itself ahead of its time in analyzing the impact of AI and what it could mean for humanity.

Given the increasingly predominant interest in the topic, in 2015, CIFAR experts proposed a new important Canadian program on artificial intelligence called Learning in Machines and Brains.[5] With a significant investment, the program aimed to advance AI research and innovation in Canada and attract and retain AI researchers capable of representing a pool of highly skilled talent and bringing together thought leaders from across the globe.

Subsequently, the Canadian government involved local governments, extending investments for autonomous technologies on its national territory.

Research Hubs

The first goal of the AI strategy, Pan-Canadian AI Strategy, was to equip an organization with innovation, bring together excellence in university hubs in the cities of Edmonton, Montreal and Toronto, and establish new centers of excellence in research and artificial intelligence innovation.

The project coordinated by CIFAR is the world's first national program for artificial intelligence.

The five-year plan has an allocation of 125 million dollars and has allowed the establishment of important institutes on AI including:

  • Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (AMII) at the University of Alberta in Edmonton
  • Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA), founded by Yoshua Bengio at the Université de Montréal which today is one of the largest public laboratories for the study of deep learning technologies.
    In addition to these there are also the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Toronto and the Institut de valorisation des données (IVADO). (2018)

The contribution of these research hubs has allowed the development of academic research and, at the same time, technologies applied to smartphones based on artificial intelligence, which we rely on every day, from voice and image recognition to automatic translation. The federal government's investment in the Pan-Canadian strategy for artificial intelligence has subsequently attracted significant investment from other levels of government and the private sector.

The provincial governments of Ontario, Québec and Alberta have committed additional funding of CAD 50-80 million each to their respective artificial intelligence institutes in the future, and the private sector has contributed a total amount of more than 100 million Canadian dollars. Support for groundbreaking AI research, the creation of highly productive global research networks, and the Pan-Canadian AI strategy are also working as a catalyst for private sector investment.

Public-private investments

One example is the Innovation Superclusters Initiative [6], a program designed to bring together heterogeneous partners from industry and academia to the non-profit sector. The goal of the project is to combine strengths and capabilities between partners in order to encourage economic growth and know-how in the Canadian territory.
The designated groups of the aforementioned project are five and each of them is an independent and non-profit entity focused on a particular industrial sector, in fact, each of these five groups has different programs with their own objectives and criteria.They are divided into: Digital Technology, Protein Industries, Advanced Manufacturing, Scale AI and Ocean. To date, the initiative has supported more than 325 projects, including more than 1,330 partner organizations and over $ 565 million in government funding. By March 2023, the program foresees an investment of up to $ 950 million.

The federal government is also preparing to announce a new AI Advisory Council, a multi-stakeholder group responsible for bringing the academic and private sectors together to offer advice and guidance on Canada's approach to AI innovation and commercialization.

These initiatives are highly complementary to the Pan-Canadian strategy for artificial intelligence, as they foster strong collaboration between industry and academia on AI.

The measures implemented by the government, in fact, have allowed an exponential growth in the number of startups based on artificial intelligence, which have sprung up throughout the country in innovation centers such as Montreal, Toronto, Waterloo, Edmonton, and Vancouver.

According to recent data, there are over 650 AI-based startups in Canada, many of which are developing products and services that have the potential to have social, environmental and economic impact.

US Big techs have also expressed their interest in Canadian initiatives: Google has invested a total of US $ 4.5 million in the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA).

Microsoft recently acquired Maluuba, a Montreal and Waterloo-based start-up specializing in natural language understanding through AI tools. Microsoft also invested in Canadian startup Element-AI, an artificial intelligence company based in Montreal, that recently raised $ 135 million from technology investors, the largest funding for a company focused on artificial intelligence of all time that demonstrates the attractiveness of the Canadian ecosystem.

Canada and the social implications of AI

The Pan-Canadian strategy for artificial intelligence also includes a research program dedicated to the social, ethical and economic impacts of AI. CIFAR is working with researchers and partners on the national territory, but also with international research centers based in France (CNRS) and the United Kingdom (UKRI) with the aim of exploring and sharing ideas, challenges and opportunities raised by this powerful new technology. The exchange and sharing of information is increasingly necessary. Indeed, although AI offers enormous opportunities for research centers and individuals for the benefit of society, the Canadian government is examining, in collaboration with the University of Ottawa's Institute for Science, Society and Policy, the consequences that technology is having and will have on employment, privacy, security, democracy and ethics.

The topics discussed mainly concern the effects of automation and job losses due to AI, especially in economies driven by small businesses in sectors such as agriculture and crafts.

In 2015, the UNESCO[7] scientific report underlined that AI will increasingly occupy a prominent place among national research priorities in the relationship with science. The related risks are not exclusive to developing countries with weak economies, but also to advanced countries where governance is still weak and regulatory capacity is inadequate.

To better understand the global impact of AI, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC)[8] is launching a program to help developing countries develop innovation in AI by identifying not only the benefits but also the risks and regulating and governing related technologies.

International dialogue and the role of Canada

Given the interest in the security of artificial intelligence, Canada has set itself the goal of achieving a key role in the international dialogue on the social implications of AI, proposing new initiatives at the international level.

The government of Québec is one of the promoters of the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence.[9]

It is an intergovernmental organization, supported by the Organisation de Coopération et de Développement Économiques (OECD) that includes 19 states dedicated to promoting consensus among member states on the standards and practices that must govern AI applications.

At the same time, the Fonds de recherche du Québec,[10] in collaboration with the Ministry of Economy, Science and Innovation, launched a call for proposals to all universities in Québec for the creation of an international observatory on the social impact of AI and digital technologies. The observatory will have the task of supporting forward-looking research, knowledge mobilization, and public engagement on the social implications of AI. The creation of the Observatory is based on a grassroots movement born with the organization of the Forum on Socially Responsible Development of AI[11] on November 3, 2017, which adopted the Montreal Declaration for the responsible development of artificial intelligence. [12]


The work of research centers and universities and the path traced by Canada thanks to the Pan-Canadian plan have developed an ecosystem on Artificial Intelligence that can be an example of good practices and governance methodologies for other states.

Japan, for example, drew up its own artificial intelligence plan shortly after Canada, based on the strategy of the US state. The same year as the launch of the pan-Canadian system, China and Singapore also proposed their strategic plan on AI. Even the European Union, just a year after Canada, proposed a common line for all member countries for the use of AI. (Dutton, 2018)

In conclusion, the pervasiveness of this new technology requires clear lines for the governance and applications of artificial intelligence not only at the national level. As Carolina Bessega, chief scientific officer for Montreal's Stradigi AI said:

“In the future, AI is going to be as normal and as natural as the electricity in this room right now. Nobody is going to talk about it because everyone is going to use it and have it”[13].

That day we will have to be ready to adopt and apply a strategy for digitization and to update the regulatory sphere capable of protecting citizenship and guaranteeing everyone to exploit the many advantages and enormous benefits of this powerful technology, from health to the environment from mobility infrastructures to education, from information to industry.


Business Events Canada. Web page:               pick/canada-leads-global-ai-race (accessed July 4, 2021)


 [1] For further information on the Pan Canadian program, consult:

[2] CIFAR official site:

[3] Description of the Global skills strategy program:

[4] Reference to CIFAR projects:

[5] Learning Machines Brains program

[6] For additional information on the innovation supercluster initiative:

[7] See:

[8] For more information:

[9] The Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence:

[10] Web page du Fonds de recherche du Québec:

[11] The Responsible AI Forum:

[12] Montréal Declaration for a Responsible Development of Artificial Intelligence:

[13], accessed on 23 August 2020


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