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Largest-ever federal university grant awarded for AI and robotics research, as part of $1.4B fund

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The Canadian government unveiled Friday which 11 universities will be receiving a portion of nearly $1.4 billion in funding for research on new technology like artificial intelligence, robotics, carbon capturing and health care.

The funds are being provided through the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF), which aims to boost research in Canadian post-secondary institutions.

Receiving the single largest grant in the program's history is the University of Toronto, which has been granted a total of $199.5 million over seven years.

Ten other schools across the country are also receiving federal funding:

This is the third time this competition for funding has been held, seeing multiple post-secondary schools submit letters of intent on projects they think would revolutionize industries. Universities' pitches are made before an independent committee, which then selects a handful for funding consideration.

Officials from the universities are calling the investment "historic," with the vice-chancellor of McGill University saying the impact of the investment will aid research in health care specifically.

"In the context of McGill today, this announcement that we're making represents a landmark investment in research, which is the largest to date in our university's 200-year history," Deep Saini said at the announcement in Montreal on Friday. 

The last time the competition occurred was in 2016, when the government rolled out $2.38 billion to 13 schools. Prior to this announcement, the single largest grant was $113 million, given in 2015 to U of T for regenerative medicine.

WHAT IS THE MONEY BEING USED FOR?

In the University of Toronto's case, the money will go to its Acceleration Consortium, which will support further research on self-driving labs that combine AI and automation to create new raw materials.

"From life-saving medications and biodegradable plastics to low-carbon cement and renewable energy," a press release from the University of Toronto reads.

The Acceleration Consortium, which launched in 2021, is a group of self-driving labs that work to discover new materials and molecules.

Using AI, scientists input properties they hope to test and allow the technology to work backwards in the "tedious trial and error" loop.

A scientist fixes the tubing of an aqueous redox flow battery. (James Morley © The Matter Lab / Acceleration Consortium, University of Toronto)

By allowing AI to complete these tasks, the labs can evaluate molecule combinations at a fraction of the time and cost it would take humans.

Some of the products being tested are biodegradable plastics, higher capacity and eco-friendly LEDs and wearable devices, corrosion-resistant alloys and sustainable cement, higher capacity batteries and antiviral coating for drugs.

The money will go towards researching and developing self-driving labs, applying the discovery and development of molecules to industries, and facilitating the commercialization of new materials while training the scientists for the future.

FUNDING COMES AS FEDS' INTEREST IN AI GROWS

Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne announced this round’s winners on Friday at an event at Concordia University in Montreal.

"The science of today is the economy of tomorrow," Champagne said. "These historic investments are helping to cement our position as Canada from world-class to world-leading. That's really what this is about this as our ambition. This is about possibilities and this is about excellence."

This comes as the federal government is expressing increasing interest in investing in new AI, as companies rapidly expand the technology and its access. The government's 2023 budget specifically lists the advancement of artificial intelligence as one of the ways to support innovation and production.

"With the best-educated workforce on earth, world-class academic and research institutions, and robust start-up ecosystems across the country, Canada’s economy is fast becoming a global technology leader — building on its strengths in areas like artificial intelligence," the budget reads.

Artificial intelligence comes in multiple forms, from smart home features to self-driving vehicles. The technology can provide a result after it is trained by humans.

In the past few months, companies like OpenAI, Microsoft and Google have dominated the growing AI industry, creating technology that can be trained to answer questions by scraping information from the internet.

AI does not function unless a human inputs context into its database, making the possibilities around what mundane tasks it could accomplish endless. 

"We are only halfway to our ambitions and I think that what we need to do is invest in space, in innovation and these investments today as a nation and society are only the beginning of our potential," Champagne said at the event in French.

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