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A landmark year for CIFAR

by Alan Bernstein Dec 18 / 17

With the holiday season and end of the year rapidly approaching, this is a natural time to look back and reflect on the past year. It’s also the natural time to look forward and both plan and speculate as to what next year will bring.

Alan BernsteinRight off the top, I’ll say that 2017 was a landmark year for CIFAR and hence will be a hard act to follow! The Board approved CIFAR’s new five-year (2017-2022) Strategic Plan “Advancing Excellence, Increasing Impact.” Our new Strategic Plan lays out a clear description of CIFAR’s values, goals and specific plans for the next five years. I believe the Plan is both ambitious and realistic. And I want to thank the many individuals whose valuable input and advice guided the development of the Plan. These include the Board of Directors, CIFAR’s staff, representative donors and partners, CIFAR fellows and Program Directors.

In March 2017, we also moved our offices from 180 Dundas St. in Toronto, the address CIFAR has called home for 15 years, to the MaRS Innovation Centre. To say that our new offices are completely different from our old digs would be the understatement of the year. When planning the move, we recognized early on that our space was not so much about space but rather how we see ourselves and how we want the world to see us. I believe that CIFAR’s new offices reflect the new and dynamic CIFAR – outward-looking, literally and metaphorically without walls, an uplifting, light-filled space that reflects our role in the world and surrounded by a hotbed of science and innovation.

Shortly after our move, the federal government announced in its Budget 2017 in March that it was awarding CIFAR $125 million over five years to develop and implement a “pan-Canadian AI Strategy.” CIFAR was chosen to deliver on this centrepiece of the government’s research and innovation agenda because our association with artificial intelligence (AI) goes back to our very first program started in 1982; because deep learning, the most powerful form of AI, was developed by Geoff Hinton, now a CIFAR Distinguished Fellow, and formerly the director of CIFAR’s Program in Neural Computation & Adaptive Perception (now called Learning in Machines & Brains); and because, I believe, the federal government has confidence in CIFAR to bring together the individuals and institutions needed to ensure the success of the program. The Strategy has four overarching goals: 1) attract, train and retain outstanding AI researchers in Canada; 2) develop a National AI Program; 3) fund three AI institutes located in Montreal, Toronto and Edmonton and affiliated with the Universities of McGill, Montreal, Toronto and Alberta; and 4) develop a program that addresses the broad implications of this powerful new general purpose technology on society (“AI & Society”).

We are moving rapidly to implementing this exciting and important new program, working closely with the three institutes and with organizations and universities here in Canada and internationally. We have also hired an Executive Director, Dr. Elissa Strome, who will be joining us at the beginning of next year, to oversee all aspects of the program.

This new program has attracted very considerable media attention (including articles in the New York Times and the Economist), and an invited appearance in front of both the Canadian Senate and the UK House of Lords over the past six months.

Because AI is such a powerful platform for analysing data in entirely new ways, its applications will extend into virtually every aspect of our lives and into virtually every area of research. For this reason, we have been holding a series of workshops combining AI thinking with new ways of medical diagnosis, discovering new materials for energy harvest and storage, and predicting the emergence and tracking of new viruses such as the Zika and Ebola viruses.

Last month, we launched our second Global Call for Ideas. Regular readers will recall that about three years ago we embarked on a new approach to develop and screen for new ideas for new CIFAR programs based on a worldwide solicitation for ideas that would address “questions of importance to the world.” That first Global Call was a great success in that the process worked (we got lots of great ideas), we made contact with scientists who we had never reached out to before, and we started four dynamic and exciting new programs. For these reasons, we decided to launch our second Global Call. We are anxiously looking forward to see what great ideas and people will come forward this time. As we did last time, we will ask distinguished researchers from across every discipline to assist us in filtering down the proposals to a manageable number that we will then invite to put forward full proposals.

Aside from the outcome of starting some great new programs, the process itself is fascinating and a great indication of the vibrancy of the global research community and the terrific scientific questions and challenges that await answers.

This year saw the renewal of three of our existing programs – Genetic Networks, Successful Societies and Gravity & the Extreme Universe. We also launched a new workshops program to explore questions of global importance. These workshops do not necessarily require the resources of a full CIFAR program, but still benefit from our experience as a convenor of top people regardless of country or discipline.

Most importantly, CIFAR fellows continue to make important advances and to receive prestigious prizes and other recognition for their research. If I had to single out one story I would highlight the detection in October of gravity waves from two colliding neutron stars. The research involved five of our fellows. This groundbreaking discovery provides further experimental evidence in support of Einstein’s general theory of relativity and sheds further insights into the origins of our universe. It also was a breathtaking tour de force involving scientists from around the world working collaboratively to make this discovery.

This year also marked our first full year of the CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars Program, highlighted by their annual meeting in Banff in which we brought together all 18 of the first year’s class of outstanding young professors to learn from each other, from experts in leadership and from Her Honour Elizabeth Dowdeswell, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, who gave an outstanding keynote address about the importance of science to society and the differing but complementary roles of the scientific and policy communities. These young researchers, whose interests range from AI to the tribal gangs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to quantum physics, are quite simply the brightest and most articulate group of young scientists I have come across in my entire scientific career. I can’t wait to see this year’s new group of Azrieli Global Scholars in action.

In closing, I’d like to thank everyone in the CIFAR community that has helped make this year such a success. I want to especially single out three groups – our dedicated and passionate staff, our donors and partners, without whom we would not exist, and most importantly our close to 400 CIFAR fellows and advisors who are the essence of CIFAR and what this great organization is all about. I hope everyone enjoys a wonderful holiday season and a happy and healthy new year.