The University of Toronto has received its largest-ever donation, a $100-million gift to further the school’s research on artificial intelligence, biomedicine and how new technologies can disrupt and enrich lives.
The donation from the Gerald Schwartz and Heather Reisman Foundation will in part go to a new 750,000-square-foot complex to be built at the northeast corner of College St. and Queen’s Park starting this fall, school president Meric Gertler announced at a Monday news conference.
Gertler said this gift to build the Schwartz Reisman Innovation Centre will help spark Canadian innovation and examine how technology shapes people’s lives.
“It is a new collective endeavour that will turbocharge innovation,” Gertler said, calling the donation from Toronto billionaires Gerald Schwartz and Heather Reisman “unprecedented” in the school’s history.
The new complex, which U of T said will be constructed in two phases, will house the Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society, which will study emerging ethical issues surrounding the field of artificial intelligence. It will provide opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students in science and humanities, Gertler said.
Schwartz, who was born in Winnipeg, is the founder and CEO of private equity firm Onex Corporation. Reisman is the founder and CEO of the Indigo bookstore chain.
The couple said they were moved to donate after they read an article on U of T’s plan to build a new innovation hub that would be a cornerstone for the Canadian economy — with references to tech-driven entrepreneurship, business partnerships and AI projects, all things they said sparked their imagination.
“It was clear that the dream was world-class bold and ready to go,” said Reisman, noting U of T already does so much in AI, biomedicine and socially responsible technology.
She said the family feels proud, honoured and excited to be a part of this “extraordinary” endeavour.
“Canada is already punching way above its weight on the AI side, and if we can help in some little way to spur that, to turbocharge that, the ramifications well into the future should be exciting.”
Designed by New York-based Weiss/Manfredi architects, the first phase of the new complex, a 250,000-square-foot, 12-storey tower, will also house the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence.
The Vector Institute, founded in 2017, is an independent non-profit affiliated with U of T and devoted to artificial intelligence research.
Vector Institute’s chief scientific adviser and U of T professor emeritus Geoffrey Hinton said the gift will boost research and innovation at the university, and help consolidate Toronto as a leading city in the field of AI.
“My own belief if that developments in deep learning will radically change our understanding of what it is to be human,” he said. “My hope is that the Schwartz Reisman Institute will be the place where deep learning disrupts the humanities.”
The second phase of the complex will include a 500,000-square-foot, 20-storey tower which will house laboratories in regenerative medicine, genetics and precision medicine, the school said.
At the Monday’s announcement, both Mayor John Tory and Navdeep Singh Bains, the federal minister of innovation, science and economic development, expressed gratitude for the donation and called for more people to invest in innovation.
The largest previous donation in U of T’s history was a $50-million gift in 2001 from the R. Samuel McLaughlin Foundation to the Faculty of Medicine.
Canadian institutions often benefit from billionaire philanthropists’ largesse. Earlier this year McGill University received $200 million from John and Marcy McCall MacBain for the creation of a graduate scholarship program.
In 2014, the Rogers family donated $130 million to the Hospital for Sick Children to establish the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research.
An anonymous donor gave $100 million gift to CAMH in 2018.
This article originally appeared in Toronto Star