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Trudeau announces AI spending plan to bolster Canadian infrastructure, computing capacity and safety



The federal government will spend $2.4-billion to bolster access to critical artificial intelligence infrastructure, build domestic computing capacity and create safeguards against the potential downsides of AI technology, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Sunday.

The reveal was the latest in a series of near-daily pre-budget announcements, in which the government has been unveiling its spending plans ahead of the release of the full federal budget on April 16.

Canada is home to world-leading AI researchers, but in recent years the country has fallen behind in providing the infrastructure needed for the growing field, particularly the advanced computer chips crucial for building and running AI models. The shift has led many to call for more government intervention.

Although Mr. Trudeau offered few details at his announcement, which he made during a news conference in Montreal, many in the industry celebrated the promised investment. Others said past experience with government spending announcements had left them skeptical of Ottawa’s ability to execute on the new promises.

Money to build and make accessible more computing power will make up the most significant portion of the new spending.

In a news release, the government said $2-billion will be shared between two new initiatives. One of them, an AI Compute Access Fund, is intended to give “near-term support” to the industry and researchers. The government provided no further details, but one way of providing this support could be by facilitating access to computing power from foreign tech giants. The other initiative, a Canadian AI Sovereign Compute Strategy, is intended to speed up the development of Canadian-owned and located AI infrastructure.

“Access to computational power and capital are two of the largest barriers to developing new AI models or applications,” Mr. Trudeau said.

The government did not specify how much of the $2-billion would go to access and how much would go to building domestic computing power.

A Finance Department official told The Globe and Mail the money would be spent over five years, and that more details would be released in the budget next week. The Globe is not identifying the official because they were not permitted to discuss detailed spending plans.

Mr. Trudeau’s announcement on AI spending follows more than a week of other funding announcements in areas including child care and housing, totalling tens of billions of dollars in new federal loans and spending. Until the budget is released next week, it will remain unclear how the new spending will affect the federal government’s bottom line.

Without accounting for the new spending announced so far, last year’s budget projected that the federal deficit for 2024-25 would be $35-billion. At his news conference, Mr. Trudeau was asked about his government’s spending and about Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre’s call for the government to find a dollar of cuts for every new dollar spent.

“We’re investing responsibly,” Mr. Trudeau said, adding in French that “a confident country invests in itself, invests in its citizens, and that’s exactly what we’re doing today.”

The government’s news release said it will also spend $200-million to help accelerate AI adoption in critical sectors and help startups bring new AI technologies to market. Another $100-million will help small and medium-sized businesses scale up and increase productivity through AI, the government said, while an additional $50-million will provide new skills training for workers displaced by AI.

A further $50-million will create a new Canadian AI Safety Institute, and $5.1-million will be set aside for the enforcement of the Artificial Intelligence and Data Act, legislation aimed at regulating AI that was tabled in 2022 and has not yet passed the House of Commons.

The announcement was broadly endorsed by one of the leaders of AI research, Yoshua Bengio, whose role in developing the technology has earned him (along with two others) the nickname “godfather of AI.” He is a professor at the Université de Montréal, and founder and scientific director of Quebec’s AI institute, which is called Mila. He was among the speakers at Mr. Trudeau’s announcement.

“The government of Canada is acting responsibly and is positioning itself on the right side of history with this announcement,” Prof. Bengio said.

Speaking in French, he said such investments are critical for economic development and an essential tool for addressing national security and geopolitical challenges. Countries that don’t have AI computing infrastructure risk being left behind, he said.

He also said the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, where he co-directs the Learning in Machines and Brains program, has been mandated to create the safety institute. The scientific questions the institute will address are existential and absolutely need to be figured out, he said.

“How do we build future AI systems that may be even surpassing human intelligence, that are also safe? That will not turn against humans? We don’t know how to do that,” Prof. Bengio said. “It’s urgent to invest in this.”

AI systems require immense computing power, and that need is expected to increase as the technology becomes more prevalent and as new applications for it are developed.

Canada is ranked fifth in the world for its AI capacity, according to the Tortoise Global AI Index, which measures countries based on a variety of factors. But when ranked on AI infrastructure alone, Canada falls to 23rd.

Some experts said they aren’t convinced Ottawa’s announcement will lead to a material improvement.

Jim Balsillie, a former co-chief executive of BlackBerry Ltd, described the plans as a good idea. But he said the government “has not demonstrated the ability to competently design or implement such investments.”

Others, including Own Innovation founder Jim Hinton, said they were concerned that the federal announcement didn’t address intellectual property issues related to AI.

Mr. Hinton, whose firm supports technology companies on intellectual property strategy, said he is skeptical of the future of the new initiative, considering the fact that past government innovation initiatives have been cancelled or postponed.

“I am afraid that this is just another announcement without execution or substance,” he said. “Call me when there are results and globally competitive Canadian AI companies at scale, or more likely, call me when the program is wildly unsuccessful.”

The Conservative Party said in a statement that it does not believe the government is competent enough to execute the announced plan.

With a report from Sean Silcoff

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