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CIFAR's Impact

CIFAR supports long-term interdisciplinary collaboration, providing researchers with an unparalleled environment of trust, transparency and knowledge sharing. Our impact is made at all stages of the research process, from early inquiry to the ways new knowledge is applied.

This kind of impact is distinct from the outcomes that many expect when thinking about research questions. CIFAR’s impact benefits entire fields of study, leading to discoveries, cures, treatments, inventions and patents.

CIFAR’s unique model has enabled numerous advances. Below are a few examples of how, over time, CIFAR has directly changed the research landscape in a way that has led to scientific advances and societal benefits.

Illustration of brain folds and motherboard connections

Artificial Intelligence

Many of the advances in machine learning today are a direct result of breakthroughs made in the understanding of neural networks and their potential for deep learning in machines.In the early 2000s, Geoffrey Hinton approached CIFAR with an idea. He had been a member of CIFAR’s first program, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics & Society (founded in 1983) and he had become convinced of the power of neural networks and their potential for deep learning in machines. By early 2004, Hinton was leading CIFAR’s Neural Computation & Adaptive Perception program (NCAP).

Its members included Yoshua Bengio and Yann LeCun, among other neuroscientists, computer scientists, biologists, electrical engineers, physicists, and psychologists. Together, they confirmed Hinton’s conviction when they created computing systems that mimicked human intelligence.

Today, the three are widely acknowledged as the pioneers of deep learning. In 2019, ACM, the Association for Computing Machinery, named Hinton, Bengio and LeCun as recipients of the 2018 ACM A.M. Turing Award — also known as the “Nobel Prize” for computing — for conceptual and engineering breakthroughs that have made deep neural networks a critical component of computing.

Maple Leaf outline

The World’s First National AI Strategy

CIFAR had a seminal role in the development of AI, which has unlocked billions of dollars of public and private sector investment worldwide. Uptake from the tech industry has been swift and new industries are being created. Voice and image recognition are now commonplace and driverless cars are becoming a reality. In 2017, as a testament to our leadership in AI, the Government of Canada appointed CIFAR to develop and lead the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, the world’s first national AI strategy.

Today, our fellows and Canada CIFAR AI Chairs explore the power and potential of intelligent machines to improve lives, and AI accelerates work in many of our research programs. CIFAR continues to build scientific capacity in AI, while encouraging its ethical application. Now, as always, we provide the time and intellectual freedom needed to yield the breakthroughs of tomorrow.

Three children sitting in field

Full-Day Kindergarten and Parenting Centres

Today, it is well known that the first years of life are crucial to human development. An absence of proper care during that time can result in catastrophic consequences later on. We owe much of what we know about this crucial time of life to CIFAR’s founder, Dr. Fraser Mustard, and his work on the Early Years Report, a seminal series of recommendations that laid the foundations for full-day kindergarten and parenting centres. Researchers including neuroscientists, psychologists and geneticists in CIFAR’s Child & Brain Development program are carrying on Dr. Mustard’s important legacy today, providing more evidence of the need for vigilance during this most sensitive period of life.

Cover of Orchid and Dandelions book

Understanding “Difficult” Children

In The Orchid and the Dandelion (Penguin Canada, 2019), W. Thomas Boyce, CIFAR fellow in the Child & Brain Development program, presents a new dichotomy of resilience in children: “dandelion” children (hardy, resilient, healthy), who are able to survive and flourish under most circumstances, and “orchid” children (sensitive, susceptible, fragile), who, given the right support, can thrive as much as, if not more than, other children. His work introduces a paradigm shift in how we understand children for their unique sensibilities, challenges and gifts. Boyce credits CIFAR for “[breathing] new life into my search for the origins and consequences of human adversities ... Without [CIFAR’s commitment] to the genius of multidisciplinarity much insight would have been lost.”

Friends sitting in sunny park

Social Determinants of Health

Good health is not merely the absence of disease or injury; it is also strongly determined by social, psychological and economic factors. This notion is now widely accepted, but that was not the case 25 years ago. CIFAR played a major part in defining this holistic conception of health, currently a core tenet of the World Health Organization.

In 1994, a team of social scientists and medical experts in CIFAR’s Population Health program pooled their knowledge and wrote the landmark publication, Why are Some People Healthy and Others Not? Today, CIFAR continues to promote the multi-factorial view of human health depicted in that book, through its Humans & the Microbiome, Child & Brain Development, and Azrieli Brain, Mind & Consciousness programs.

Cover of 2018 World Happiness Report

World Happiness Report

We all want to be happy — but what, exactly, is happiness? According to University of British Columbia economist and CIFAR Distinguished Fellow John Helliwell, the happiness of a country can be measured quantitatively by examining a variety of psychological, economic, medical and social factors. Such analysis can guide policy, leading to societies where everyone thrives.

In April 2012, the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network published the first World Happiness Report, co-authored by Helliwell, then co-director of CIFAR’s program in Social Interactions, Identity & Well-Being. The report continues to be issued regularly and incorporates data from 150 countries. It has been cited as a valuable tool not only for developing policy, but for measuring its lasting impact.

Photo of the CHIME structure

Solving the Mysteries of an Expanding Universe

Every day, the revolutionary Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) radio telescope provides astronomers with information. Thanks to the ingenuity of CIFAR fellows like Victoria Kaspi and Ue-Li Pen, astronomers are now also using CHIME to hunt for Fast Radio Bursts and pulsars, some of the sky's most abiding puzzles.

Located in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, CHIME’s unique shape allows it to survey more than half of the sky each day as the earth rotates, without round dishes or moving parts. CHIME captures radio frequencies that can map hydrogen gas in the Universe, which will eventually result in a three-dimensional image of the largest volume of space ever surveyed. This will lead astronomers to a better understanding of why the universe is expanding at an increasing rate.