From McGill: “How Montreal aims to become a world centre of artificial intelligence”

McGill University

McGill University


Montreal Gazette

May 20, 2017
Bertrand Marotte

Doina Precup, associate professor in computer sciences at McGill University, is the recipient of a Google research award. “People didn’t really care for this type of research,” she says of the early days of AI. John Mahoney / Montreal Gazette

It might seem like an ambitious goal, but key players in Montreal’s rapidly growing artificial-intelligence sector are intent on transforming the city into a Silicon Valley of AI.

Certainly, the flurry of activity these days indicates that AI in the city is on a roll. Impressive amounts of cash have been flowing into academia, public-private partnerships, research labs and startups active in AI in the Montreal area.

And hopes are high that a three-day conference starting May 24 — AI Forum — will help burnish Montreal’s reputation as one of the world’s emerging AI advanced research centres and top talent pools in the suddenly very hot tech trend.

Topics and issues on the agenda include the evolution of AI in Montreal and the transformative impact AI can have on business, industry and the economy.

For example, researchers at Microsoft Corp. have successfully developed a computing system able to decipher conversational speech as accurately as humans do. The technology makes the same, or fewer, errors than professional transcribers and could be a huge boon to major users of transcription services like law firms and the courts.

Setting the goal of attaining the critical mass of a Silicon Valley is “a nice point of reference,” said tech entrepreneur Jean-François Gagné, co-founder and chief executive officer of Element AI, an artificial intelligence startup factory launched last year.

“It’s ambitious,” allowed Gagné, one of the keynote speakers at the AI Forum, held in partnership with the annual C2 Montréal international gabfest.

Jean-François Gagné is co-founder and chief executive officer of Element AI, an artificial intelligence startup factory launched in Montreal last year. John Mahoney / Montreal Gazette

The idea is to create a “fluid, dynamic ecosystem” in Montreal where AI research, startup, investment and commercialization activities all mesh productively together, said Gagné, who founded Element with researcher Nicolas Chapados and Université de Montréal deep learning pioneer Yoshua Bengio.

“Artificial intelligence is seen now as a strategic asset to governments and to corporations. The fight for resources is global,” he said.

The rise of Montreal — and rival Toronto — as AI hubs owes a lot to provincial and federal government funding.

Ottawa promised $213 million last September to fund AI and big data research at four Montreal post-secondary institutions. Quebec has earmarked $100 million over the next five years for the development of an AI “super-cluster” in the Montreal region.

The provincial government also created a 12-member blue-chip committee to develop a strategic plan to make Quebec an AI hub, co-chaired by Claridge Investments Ltd. CEO Pierre Boivin and Université de Montréal rector Guy Breton.

But private-sector money has also been flowing in, particularly from some of the established tech giants competing in an intense AI race for innovative breakthroughs and the best brains in the business.

Bengio’s Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA) got $4.5 million last November from Alphabet Inc.’s Google, an aggressive backer of research in machine learning.

(Machine learning makes computers smarter and able to learn from data-based information rather than simply responding to static instructions. It involves the creation of computer neural networks that mimic human brain activity and can program themselves to solve complex problems rather than having to be programmed.)

Google has also launched a deep learning — a subfield of machine learning — and AI research lab at its existing offices in Montreal.

Microsoft has launched a new venture fund whose first investment — an undisclosed amount — is in Element AI.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant also plans to double its AI R&D team in Montreal to about 90 people over the next year, said Microsoft Canada spokeswoman Lisa Gibson.

Montreal-based AI startups are involved in a variety of niche areas, including medical diagnostics like radiology — machines are now able to detect cancerous tumours better than radiologists — translation and voice mimicry.

Government support and a relatively low cost of living have helped establish Montreal as an emerging AI advanced research centre, says McGill’s Doina Precup. John Mahoney / Montreal Gazette

Lyrebird, founded by three U de M PhD students, has developed speech synthesis software that can copy anyone’s voice and make it say anything. Possible applications include using fake famous voices in audio-book readings and creating idiosyncratic voices for automated personal assistants.

Botler AI, founded by Iranian-born engineer Amir Moravej, uses AI to help immigrants navigate the labyrinthine immigration process. The product uses actual cases and government guidelines to help steer users seeking admission to Quebec’s foreign workers and student program.

U de M and McGill University are the academic bedrocks on which Montreal’s AI sector has been built. About 150 AI researchers toil at the two institutions, making the city one of the world’s largest basic deep learning centres.

“We stuck to academia, which helped us build big labs with a lot of graduate students,” said Doina Precup, associate professor in computer sciences at McGill and recipient of a Google research award.

“The training and the research started much before (AI) was popular, since the early 2000s, when people didn’t really care for this type of research.”

Government backing over the years and Montreal’s relatively low cost of living compared with places like San Francisco have also been a boon, said Precup.

Montreal’s rich talent pool is a major reason Waterloo, Ont.-based language-recognition startup Maluuba decided to open a research lab in the city, said the company’s vice-president of product development, Mohamed Musbah.

“It’s been incredible so far. The work being done in this space is putting Montreal on a pedestal around the world,” he said.

Microsoft struck a deal this year to acquire Maluuba, which is working to crack one of the holy grails of deep learning: teaching machines to read like the human brain does. Among the company’s software developments are voice assistants for smartphones.

Maluuba has also partnered with an undisclosed auto manufacturer to develop speech recognition applications for vehicles. Voice recognition applied to cars can include such things as asking for a weather report or making remote requests for the vehicle to unlock itself.

CEO Jean-François Gagné consults with engineer Philippe Mathieu at Element AI offices in Montreal. “We want to be part of that conversation — shaping what AI is going to look like,” Gagné says of the startup. John Mahoney / Montreal Gazette

Musbah doesn’t view Toronto — which holds bragging rights to also being a significant global AI centre — as a threat. “There’s a productive competitive relationship between Toronto and Montreal,” he said.

“So far, (the rivalry) has been contributing positively to Canada” as well as to efforts to reverse the AI brain drain to the U.S. over the past several years and retain the best AI minds here at home, he said.

Element AI aims to have 100 employees by the end June, which will make it the largest private AI group in Canada, said Gagné.

The organization, a private-sector/academia hybrid, wants to help companies get access to cutting-edge technology, invest in startups and generally act as a counterweight to the massive heft of titans like Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and China’s Baidu, he said.

Regulatory and ethical concerns will be among the topics to be discussed at this month’s AI Forum. “We want to be part of that conversation, shaping what AI is going to look like,” said Gagné.

Two issues he singles out as critical are the potential for loss of privacy and job disruption resulting from AI technology.

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